Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Monday, January 3, 2011
It's already been exceptionally damp here this fall and winter, and there are undoubtedly a few more months of it to go. True, heavy rain doesn't have quite the glamor of blizzards and the other midwinter hazards, but I think the invasion of mildew may beat other things for sheer depressingness. I'm living on a slope in a structure with an inadequate foundation, and this isn't the first time I've moved a box and found a sneak attack of mildew along the baseboards. Typically, rather than try to put everything back the way I found it before my most recent campaign, I decided to take time out to write a little blog post instead.
What is mildew, exactly? And does it have any redeeming features whatsoever?
Hmm. Now I'm not sure whether to call my invader mildew or not. Mycologists, or those involved in the study of fungi, would probably call this mold, reserving the name of mildew only for the type that grows on plants. Moreover, there are two types of mildew, and they belong to two different plant kingdoms, "powdery mildew" which is a type of fungus, and the "downy mildew" which is part of the protista kingdom--largely the one-celled among us, but not always. Frankly, we are getting way deeper into biological plant classifications than I particularly want to go at the moment, particularly since I am unlikely to be able to figure out exactly which type has taken up residence anyway.
The etymological history is actually just as ambiguous. For the most part, the etymologists seem to agree that "mildew" actually comes from the Latin for honeydew, which originally was not a melon, but the sticky droppings left on plants by aphids. Presumably, other kinds of visible plant plagues got swept up into the concept. But, as a book called Folk-etymology , by Abram Smythe Palmer points out, "The etymological diversities of this word are remarkable." He thinks that the Anglo-Saxon mele-deaw suggests a connection with melu or "meal" because of its powdery appearance. He mentions the honeydew connection (and then moves on to the Gaelic word mill-chou ("probably borrowed from the English word") which he thinks is a combination of mill "to injure" and "ceo" mist and ends up meaning "a destructive mist".
Whew. Where is Anatoly Liberman to sort all this out when we need him?
Well, luckily, there is also Charles Hodgson. He talks a bit about mildew over on the Pod Dictionary. Thanks to Hodgson, I now know about Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. After Henry the VIII dismantled the Catholic monasteries of England, Cotton singlehandedly rescued many of the manuscripts that suddenly were without a safe home. Mildew shows up in the Cleopatra Glossary A.III. Whether Cleopatra ever spoke about mildew is irrelevant. Cotton had busts of famous people on the tops of his bookshelves, and this document resided within her domain. Nice system, don't you think?
Considering the value of the documents that Sir Robert housed, I really have to hope that he did not have the same kinds of mildew problems that I do.