The Italian Almanac

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sardonic grin

Sardonic Grin

Sardinian scientists believe they`ve traced the roots of the `death-defying` sardonic grin to a water plant commonly found on the Italian island.

Greek poet Homer first used the word, an adaptation of the ancient word for Sardininan, to describe a defiant smile or laugh in the face of death. He was believed to have coined it because of the belief that the Punic people who settled Sardinia gave condemned men a potion that made them smile before dying.

The association with Sardinia has often been disputed, but Cagliari University botanists think they`ve settled the case - and the plant in question could have beneficial properties too. The plant, tubular water-dropwart (oenanthe fistulosa), is common in Sardinia, where it is popularly known as `water celery`.

``Our discovery supports what many cultural anthropologists have said about death rituals among the ancient Sardinians,`` said Cagliari University Botany Department chief Mauro Ballero. ``The Punics were convinced that death was the start of new life, to be greeted with a smile,`` he said.

Ballero`s team, whose work appears in the latest edition of the US Journal of Natural Products, have established that a toxic substance in the dropwart plant does, in fact, cause facial muscles to contract and produce a grimace or rictus. The discovery could have a brighter side, he said, leading to drugs that might help certain conditions where parts of the face are paralysed.