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The word “herbal”
While working on a project that involved translation (but was not itself a translation project), I found out that the formulas prescribed by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners are called “herbal remedies” in English. The other day, I happened to want to use a bag of off-the-shelf medicine that I had bought earlier, so I opened the bag, and — surprise — the first thing that popped up in my mind was “But this is not herbal!” While I knew there to be non-herbal ingredients in some formulas (say gypsum), I had always thought that all the plant-based ingredients used are herbal. (Let’s say I knew some of these “herbal” ingredients are fruits and somehow I never had a problem with that.) Yet what I saw were pieces of wood — definitely plant-based but not herbal. Yes, in Chinese these formulas can indeed be referred to as “herbal medicine”. But is it not true that there is a certain element of inappropriateness when we continue to call them “herbal” in English?
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