Saturday, August 25, 2012


I don't think there's anything magical about it, but it's funny how often an unknown word will come to me twice in a short space of time. I had noticed the word 'codling' in a historical novel I'm reading about John Donne's family called Conceit by Mary Novik. It's a well researched and thoughtful book that captures the atmosphere of 17th century England and in its early pages, we find John Donne's mare Parrot nuzzling his arm, begging for a codling. "The Dean selected an apple, polished it on his sleeve, then held it out on his palm." From this I gathered that a codling was some sort of apple, and thought it was interesting that I hadn't heard the term before.

I might have forgotten it, though, if a few nights later I wasn't up at Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of Twelfth Night, and heard Malvolio describe Cesario--ie, Viola-- to Olivia.

    Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy; as a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a
cooling when 'tis almost an apple: 'tis with him
in standing water, between boy and man.

Between the two references, I guess we can take it that a codling is an unripe apple.

Now though I'd like to pretend that I'd never heard the word before, I have in fact seen Twelfth Night many times, and even once recited a passage not many lines from the above, so I have heard it--I've just never noticed it. And if I'd had to take a wild guess out of context, I would have hazarded that a codling was a small cod. Apple wouldn't have been in the top one hundred. So...two questions. Do people still talk about codlings in this way, just out of my hearing? And why is it called something so unrelated?


You know, I really thought this was going to be fairly simple. That's why I'm rushing it in on a Saturday night when I could be doing other (though probably not better) things. For it turns out that codling even somewhat eludes the great Anatoly Liberman, at least if we are to judge by his paragraphs on it in Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. In it, he tells us that the word codling, or codlin, has had "almost unbelievable adventures". It's been written as quadling and quodling, which in the 15th century were also rendered as querling and querdelyng. As unripe fruits, they were pretty astringent, and a folk etymology grew up around them that they were called codlings because they had to be 'coddled' or slowly stewed before being suitable to eat, apparently with cream.

Liberman apparently finds another etymology sounder, that which ties the word to Richard the Lion-Hearted. How so, you ask? And well you might. Apparently, that lion-hearted bit is rendered in French as couer-de-lion, which became the family names Querdelioun and Querdling, andeventually in Norfolk, Quadling and Quodling. Liberman does admit that he finds that giving a sour little fruit such an esteemed name seems a bit illogical, but I suppose stranger things have happened.

I'm never going to second guess Liberman on what's a sound etymology and what isn't, but despite this aura of other things floating around the apple--or appling/--I wonder if it isn't all a bit simpler than that.  A codd, in Middle English, is a sack or a husk, a kell or caul, and so on. All mean a kind sheath around something, and often, as in the peascod which is also in the above Shakespeare quotation,the protective hull of the seeds or germs of new life it carries within. It is also the cod of codpiece,which was why codling was also according to Bardopathy, slang for the scrotum or testicles. I'm not sure that it's really so difficult to think of the apple as a codd of its own precious seed, or to take it a bit further and see that a cod that is not quite developed would be a codling.

As for the first question--whether codling is a common term for unripe apples still, apple growers, I must appeal to you...

Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andre Aguecheek in the current production.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Last Sunday, I was sitting in a church in Vista, California. My sisters and I were all down at that end of the state celebrating my aunt's birthday with her, and this was part of the weekend. Someone  happened to notice that the order of service pamphlet we'd been given said it was the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, and wanted to know what Pentecost was. My aunt would have known this at one point, but her  memory is in decline, and I did learn this at some point in my past, but I had forgotten as well. I believe it is the day when the Holy Spirit is supposed to have descended upon the faithful, and I always think of the Charles Williams' title in this regard, The Descent of the Dove, but that's about it. The pente is obviously some aspect of five, but whether five days, five weeks, or fifty, I don't know.

Anyway, except for my aunt, none of us are regular churchgoers, and as it won't come up much in daily life again, I was going to give this particular bit of ignorance a pass. Once we get going on all the things I don't know about Christian doctrine, we will never stop, and I kind of figure that all the people who really want to know this stuff already do, and those who don't, well, don't.

But in the odd way that things converge, it turns out that Whitsunday, a word that was bobbing around in my brain in my last post on 'whit,' is actually just another word for Pentecost. I may be slow, but I can take a hint, so here we go.


All right. A Jewish festival before it was a Christian one. You knew that, right? I thought it was correlated with Easter, but it actually refers to the fiftieth day after Passover. 'Pentecost' comes from the Greek pentekoste hemera, meaning 'fiftieth day', and though I had been thinking of the Koine Greek of the early Christian New Testament, it was actually the Hellenized Greek Jews who came up with the term. In Hebrew, Pentecost is Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, celebrating the end of a period after Pesach, or Passover. It is both an ancient harvest festival and the day designated by Jewish tradition as the day the Torah was given to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai.

You can see that, as with many holidays, there is a bit of an overlay of one tradition upon an older one, so it may be no surprise that the fledgling Christian faith might seek to distinguish this day as its own in some way as well. For Christians, Pentecost is celebrated as the day that the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles during Shavuot and filled them with the ability to preach their faith in the resurrection of Christ. The tradition has it that they were miraculously able to speak in the languages of all the people they met that day. The speaking in tongues of Pentecostal Christians comes from this tradition.

Whitsunday is a British name for the Christian holiday rather than the Jewish one. It pretty clearly means White Sunday, though it is not entirely certain why white is part of it all. A pretty good chance is that it is connected to the idea of purity, and I've read that it was when, after a period of penance following Easter, sinners were able to return to the fold, but also that Whitsunday is the day when the baptized undergo therites of Confirmation in their faith, and white is the color of the new initiate.

There is also the possibility that Whitsunday is itself an overlaying of one tradition on another, and that there may have been a pagan British celebration of the coming of summer, in which young women dressed in white to invoke a "white, clear summer sun". This last I gleaned from an Anatoly Liberman post, in which Whitsunday comes up in article about Etymology as a Battlefield, in which he tells us firmly that Whitsunday has nothing to do with wit. Nor is it etymologically related to the German Pfingsten, though they mean the same thing.

This last I might have suspected even without a noted etymologist's help...

British pagans celebrating the,uh, Autumn Equinox, but you see my point.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What's a whit?

Not a whit. We defy augury.

In my last post I noticed after posting that I had used 'wit' in place of 'whit' when using the phrase 'not one whit'. I corrected the sentence, but it got me wondering about the word. What is a whit? To matter  not one whit is to matter not at all, so we are talking something very small, like a splinter, or the mote in your brother's eye. Right?

I haven't a clue, but the term Whitsunday keeps popping into my mind. I doubt that they're related, but we may as well throw that one into the brew too.


Well, this is the kind of the thing that interests me. A whit is indeed a tiny amount, like a particle, an iota, a jot, any of these things. But in itself it doesn't actually mean a small amount, it just means an amount. There is usually a negative attached to the word somewhere, as in my own example, 'not one whit'. Another example-- 'he doesn't have a whit of sense'. You don't usually hear 'he has a whit of sense'. 

Whit is 'the smallest particle', but it comes from the 12th century na whit, which means 'no amount'. The Old English was nan wiht (see how the 'h' gets transposed), in which a wiht is not just an amount, but a human being, a living creature. This relates it to another branch off of the word, wight, which is a person--often an unfortunate one--and sometimes a spirit or a ghost.

You can hear, once you think about it, howwhit might be related to our current word "naught", which again comes from nawhit--"nothing, or no amount". It is related in an opposite kind of way to "aught", which is a contraction of aiwi, ever, and wihti, thing. Together, they mean "anything whatever, or anything at all".

To my shock and horror, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that Shakespeare, Milton and Pope all used 'aught' and 'ought' indiscriminately. Poets. Everything's about the sound.

And what of Whitsunday, you ask? Well, that one deserves a separate post, which, if the world was the ideal place it should be, would be shortly to follow...

Monday, August 13, 2012


In another minute there was no letter; but, as with every other relationship in my life, an eschar of ashes. The word is rare, but exact.

This sentence comes fairly near the end of John Fowles' The Magus, which  my reading group recently set me to reading. I won't spoil it for you by giving you the context--this is more by way of saying that I don't typically just pull random words from the linguistic universe, but do actually come across them, however unusually. I like this sentence too, because it says better than I would why I think we should seek out these rare words and pin them down for ourselves. It is because sometimes they are singularly apt. They say the thing better than we would have said them without them.

That said, though, I really have no idea what an eschar is, and context here doesn't especially help me. Obviously, there is a burnt letter and what remains is ash. But I have no idea what that ash looks like afterwards. Is it a little mound? Or something flatter? Does eschar have anything to do with charring, or is the fact of it being ash in this case irrelevant?

What? You can't wait to find out either?

Then here we go.


Ah--not char but scar is the key relation here. An eschar is dead tissue that the body casts off, like a scab, but one particularly related to burning. It's also used in the context of gangrene and things like necrotic spider bites. So in Fowles' sentence, the eschar is the dead tissue of the letter. It doesn't matter what shape it takes.

In Ancient Greek, eschara  or ἐσχάρα meant scab, but it also meant hearth or brazier. So Fowles' use is not only apt, but rather brilliant. There is the burnt letter, the eschar of ashes, but the letter has also created a scar or scab on our protagonist. It is burnt in the fireplace. And the story also happens to be set in Greece. You could say "too clever by half", but this is a throwaway, and the story suffers not one whit if you don't happen to notice it. Which I have to admit, I didn't.

Caine, Bergen and Quinn in the movie

Monday, August 6, 2012

No man is an island, but he might still be an isle

Just when you get the sense that you know something, it turns out that you know nothing--nothing at all. I mean, if I wasn't 100% sure that "island" and "isle" were related, I was 99.9% sure. But life is constituted in such a way that all our certainties are there solely to be crumbled.

As Peter Rozovsky reported in the comments after the last post, "Island" and "isle" are etymologically unrelated. Crazy, right? Crazy, but true. "Isle" stems from the same source as the French  île, as in  Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris. It is connected to the Latin insula--you know, like in "insulate", or "peninsula". As the Online Etymology Dictionary has it, the "Ancients" guessed that it came from in salo--that which is in the sea.

"Island", though, has an Old English beginning. It went back through yland to the older iegland. "Land" is probably self-explanatory--ieg is more  interesting. It's related to many water words, like "agua" and "aqua". Ieg shows up in British place names, where it means, "slightly raised dry ground offering settlement sites in areas surrounded by marsh or subject to flooding". It is a little bit of land upon the waters.

All right, all right, but where is that blasted "s" coming from? In either case? It seems to be that the s in island comes across from contamination from French, but how can that be when île didn't have an s in it either?

Students of French probably already have the answer. See that little cap over the i in île? That's what's known as a circumflex, mes amis. The circumflex represents a missing, silent letter--often an s. The French dropped a lot of 's's over time. What's interesting is that when the French Normans invaded England and came to stay for a couple few centuries,  the English gamely added those words to their own language. Words like forest, hospital, feast. These words sounded like the Old French words. But in France itself, these words were undergoing a change in the vernacular. The circumflex was the monkly nod (monks being the ones writing stuff down at that time) to that vanished, silent s. Forest is forêt. Beast is bête. Paste is pâté. Here's the link that helped me understand all this.

And here's a discussion of more surprisingly unrelated words.

Like I always say--you never know where ignorance is going to take you...

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Shall we repair to the drawing room? And should we bring tools?

I heard this on some show or other recently. It struck me. I know what "Shall we repair to the drawing room?" means, of course. It means, retire to or withdraw to. But what in heck does it have to do with repairing anything? Always curious as to how those metaphors get extended, I decided to find out.


"Repair" and "repair" are two distinct words. No, really. Although they look EXACTLY alike, they draw from different wells. "Repair", as in fixing something, goes back to the Old French reparer, which stems from the Latin reparare, to restore, or put back in order. But the repair in "repair to" stems from the Old French repairer, which means to frequent, or return to. It's earlier form was repadrer, going back to the Latin repatriare, to return to one's own country.

Call me gullible, but I am not entirely satisfied by this explanation. Where did that 'i' come from in the second version? Why isn't it something along the lines of 'repatrate' to the drawing room? Doesn't it seem like their might have been just a leetle, tiny bit of blending of meanings in that "repair to", which combines both the restorative and the returning meanings of the word?

And where is Anatoly Liberman when we need him most?