Today, the word balm can refer to any ointment used to heal the skin, but when it was first borrowed into the English language as basme in the thirteenth century, it referred to a specific kind of aromatic resin extracted from a specific kind of tree. Through Old French, the noun traces to Latin balsamum, which could pertain to either the resin or the type of tree it came from (the balsam - that's also where we get that word). Going further back, balsamum comes from Ancient Greek balsamon, with the same definitions; and that comes from a Semitic word which probably meant something like "spice" because it has cognates like Arabic basham, also "spice", and Hebrew bosem, "perfume". According to Google Ngrams, usage of balm peaked around the turn of the nineteenth century, but it's been on the rise again lately.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a junior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.