The proper name is “Asefoetida” (also Asefetida). To remember it, think (ass + fetid).
Ferula assafoetida, (family Apiaceae), alternative spelling asafetida (also known as devil’s dung, stinking gum, asant, food of the gods, hing, and giant fennel) is a species of Ferula native to Iran…Asafoetida’s English and scientific name is derived from the Persian word for resin (asa) and Latin foetida, which refers to its strong sulfurous odor. Its pungent odor has resulted in its being called by many unpleasant names; thus in French it is known (among other names) as Merde du Diable (Devil’s Shit); in some dialects of English too it was known as Devil’s Dung, and equivalent names can be found in most Germanic languages… (source)
Back in the days when herbal medicine, founded partly on myth and partly on fact, was the norm, a common practice among fishwives and farmwives was to mix a paste of asefetida resin, and hang it in a bag around a child’s neck to ward off worms, colds, diptheria, smallpox, and other noxious diseases. This practice probably has its roots in the antiquated idea that disease is the product of “humours” or “vapors” which arise from the earth – the preventative “rationale” being that one stink will ward off another.
The converse of this idea is that perfumes, or sweet-smelling herbs as opposed to foul, also ward off disease, thus the ancient children’s rhyme which refers to The Plauge:
Ring around the rosy (the “stigma” of a swollen lymph gland with a rosy appearance signaling the onset of the disease)
Pocket full of posies (the ineffectual preventitive)
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down (the afflicted die, and their house and their possessions are burned).
Asefetida was also used in various “patent medicines” from the era of medicine shows and snake-oil salesemen.
I’ve never smelled the stuff myself, but according to accounts from the late 19th and early 20th century, asefetida reeks, thus colorful names like “Devil’s Dung.” However, I’ve read that when used in cooking (it is popular in some parts of the world), the smell “mellows down” to an “onion-like” aroma. Which can hardly be described as “pleasant” – at least not when it’s on someone’s breath – but then, neither is such offensive enough to deserve the term “devil’s dung.”
This article was originally posted at Fist Of Blog