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I was watching the series Isabel the other day (about Isabel La Catolica, the Spanish Queen), and at some point, one of the characters said "me importa un comino". Now, the scene was placed in late XV century. It crossed my mind that such phrase might have not existed at that time.

I've failed to find meaningful stuff online about the origin of this phrase (or related ones). There are some unsupported claims floating around that "me importa un comino" originated in France in the XVIII century (e.g. here and here). I would be very interested in a more "official", academic or just more solidly supported hypothesis. Any ideas?

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In this blog entry about the origin of certain expressions we see that all these expressions in the form of

Me importa un + "pimiento", "bledo" , "pito", "comino", "pepino", "rábano", etc.

have in common is the little value of whatever you are naming and that it almost always seems to be a vegetable.

Los gramáticos suelen hablar de este procedimiento como el de una negación con sustantivos que designan objetos de valor ínfimo o nulo. Desde un punto de vista semántico es evidente la idea de pequeñez, insignificancia o de escaso valor, y pueden ser equivalentes a otras expresiones de índole vulgar y escatológico. Aunque antiguamente eran frecuentes con verbos como “valer” o “costar”, en la actualidad se prefiere el verbo “importar” o “interesar”, casi en exclusividad, acompañados, las más de las veces, por cuantificadores, entre los que destaca un: “Esto me importa un pepino (o comino o bledo)”

The "comino" (Same in English as just another name for cumin, the spice) is a plant whose seeds are very small and common. Although this spice is used to cook it is not expensive at all (it wasn't a rare spice and it's flavor and smell are not considered the strongest or best among spices). It would be like saying

I care about it as much as about a (single) grain of salt / rice / pepper.

Meaning "it's almost worthless and insignificant".

In spite of those claims, like this blog entry, that the origin of "me importa un comino" dates from France, circa 1800, when this plant/spice was considered little more than a plague and almost useless, it seems that during medieval times this spice has little value (even before or if it really became a plague in France).

The author of the first blog entry1 highlights that

[...] las sociedades en las que surgieron estas expresiones eran eminentemente rurales por lo que no solo el escaso aprecio o valor de esos vegetales –bledo– o lo pequeño de su tamaño –rábano, comino–, sino su cercanía cotidiana a todas ellas las hacían propicias para la creación de expresiones familiares que sirven para dar a conocer de forma inmediata y efectiva nuestro punto de vista sobre la realidad

So, a plague of cumin could be considered accidental in regards to the origin of this expression, since the are may other similar to that one with bledo, rábano, pimiento, etc.

The author even says that

La vida de muchas de [estas expresiones] es larga, tanto que, como en el caso de bledo, la expresión ha alcanzado mayor éxito que el uso culinario de ese vegetal, por lo que no ha resultado difícil perder de vista el objeto real mencionado. Muchas de estas expresiones vienen empleándose ya desde la Edad Media, junto a otras que ya se han perdido, como “esto no vale un haba” o “no vale una arveja”, que se pueden encontrar en textos escritos hace más de siete siglos (como en los textos de Gonzalo de Berceo, por ejemplo)

So it seems unlike that we incorporated this expression from French (which would be the most likely thing if it had originated from a plague of cumin in France) and is more likely that all these expression originated from giving little value to some of these items, especially in rural areas where these vegetables were not only inexpensive but very common.

Special attention to that claim that the expression can be found in texts from seven centuries ago (way before that cumin plague in France -if it ever occurred).


1: Crisanto Pérez Esáin es doctor en Literatura Hispánica y Teoría Literaria por la Universidad de Navarra (España). Es profesor de la Facultad de Ciencias de la Educación de la Universidad de Piura desde el año 1999.

Ha publicado, entre otras cosas, Los trazos en el espejo: identidad y escritura en la narrativa de Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Pamplona (España): Editorial de la Universidad de Navarra-EUNSA, 2005; y La narrativa de Julio Ramón Ribeyro: una guía de lectura, en autoría compartida con Javier de Navascués (Universidad de Navarra), Madrid: Cenlit.

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  • Thanks. I had a look at the second blog you refer to (it was meant to be part of the "some unsupported claims floating" statement.) Still, I think such claim needs to be supported by evidence. As it is, it's just a guess. – luchonacho Dec 14 '18 at 14:48
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    @luchonacho I updated the answer with a blog entry from someone with a PhD in Spanish literature. It is way more likely that the expression comes from the little value of all these things (which often are vegetables) than fro ma plague of cumin. Unlikely that there are similar expression from plagues of "bledos", "rábanos", "pepinos",etc. and it seems that these expression can be found in written texts predating that supposed cumin plague in France. – Diego Dec 14 '18 at 15:01
  • I always thought the dot dot dot was an euphemism for otras expresiones de índole vulgar y escatológico Never knew exactly which :P – enxaneta Dec 14 '18 at 15:50

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