Category Archives: etymology

Eating My Words

I’m Changing My Name to Baba Ghanoush

If eggplant were the only food product available on the planet, I’d starve to death. It’s one of three or four comestibles I gag on. I can’t even tolerate the odor.

It’s a pity, because it deprives me of a reason to say baba ghanoush. What a wonderful phrase! It trips off the tongue like a small shower of pebbles falling on sand… baba ghanoush, of which the chief ingredient is eggplant. You also toss in some tahini—another pretty little word, much sweeter to say than its definition, which is “sesame-seed paste.”

Almost as much fun to pronounce as baba ghanoush are falafel and chickpeas—the former being composed of the latter along with onion, garlic, and a little flour. Sadly, I never met a chickpea I could swallow. As you might surmise, I don’t spend much time at west-Asian or eastern-European restaurants.

If my food-and-beverage choices were based entirely on vocabulary rather than flavor, I’d enjoy a preprandial Manhattan, or, possibly, an Old Fashioned. Whether or not approved by sommeliers, I’d order a glass of Moscato to drink with my baba ghanoush, my falafel, and other delectables.

Did you know that there is a word for continuing to eat when you’re full because the food is so good? That word, from the country (not the state) of Georgia, is shemomedjamo, translated as “I accidentally ate the whole thing,” according to wordnik.com. That same source gives us the German word kummerspeck—literally “grief bacon,” referring to “the excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating.” If I had the time, I would befriend recent divorcees solely for the opportunity to say, “Poor Brenda. Bless her heart, she’s put on thirty pounds of kummerspeck since Humphrey went off with Cruella. Too many sessions of shemomedjamo, I’m thinking.”

Here’s a small word with a large and complex meaning, having nothing to do with food but leaving one musing about the circumstances under which the need for such a word arose: It’s tingo, from the Pascuense language of Easter Island, and it means “to borrow objects from a friend’s house, one by one, until there’s nothing left” (bbc.co.uk, ”Tingo, nakkele and other wonders”).

Questions pop up like crocuses in April: Is this a common occurrence on Easter Island? Does the borrowing occur surreptitiously or in the open, and doesn’t the borrowee notice that his or her possessions are melting away? Are Easter Islanders too polite to ask for the return of their vegetable peelers, their hiking boots, and their beds? It boggles the mind.

Back to food…. My favorite forms of bonne bouche (Americans pronounce this French phrase “bun boosh” when they want a fancy way to say “tasty morsel”) are not, alas, euphonious. Fudge is a case in point. The word is as unlovely as the candy is delicious, especially when homemade, with real butter—and how about that for a word? Margarine is nicer to say but butter is better in all the ways that count.

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Athwartships and Holy Foreskins

An Athwartships Sort of Day

circumcision-of-christIT’S EASY ENOUGH TO BUMP ME OFF-TASK; throw a word such as DEPERM in my path and I’m off to the races.

I encountered DEPERM during a friendly game of Words with Friends. It was Janice M., one of my friendliest (and most formidable) WWF rivals, who laid out DEPERM for 39 points. My first thought, when I saw the unfamiliar word, was “hair.” Most of my woman friends have, at least once, permed and regretted it. Was it now possible to UN-perm? Had I stumbled on a new solution for overcooked hair?

Turns out DEPERM is a nautical thing. According to dictionary.com, to deperm is to “reduce the permanent magnetism of (a vessel) by wrapping an electric cable around it vertically athwartships and energizing the cable.” Wow. Move over, deperm. Make way for athwartships. 

Athwartships (say it five times real fast) means “sideways (across a vessel),” but it’s far too delicious a word to withhold from landlubbers (see below). Think of parents whose kids are just starting to dress themselves: “Great job, Belinda! Oh, but you’ve put your left sock on athwartships.”

A landlubber is not a land-lover so much as a person who is unfamiliar with sailing and the sea. Sailors, it seems, use the term with contempt. Lubber, meaning “lout” or “clumsy person,” comes down to us through Middle English, possibly from Old Norse. I learned this from Kevin Stroud, whose podcast on the history of the English language is tied for first place in my PPR (personal podcast ranking), alongside David Crowther’s History of England.

emelye-in-the-garden-from-boccaccios-il-teseida

Lady fingers

Podcasts contributed a great deal to my sanity during two years when I was ill. For days on end, the only voices I heard were Kevin’s and David’s, and I realized that these guys need more than good material. They have to be credible, entertaining, and trustworthy—the last, because, after all, I was letting them into my bedroom.

David, in particular, kept me laughing. As a demonstration of his offbeat approach to history, I’ve transcribed the last few minutes (starting at 30:57) of History of England Episode 121, “Counter Revolution,” in which David is describing some of the holy relics that drew European pilgrims to religious shrines during the Middle Ages. My transcription isn’t perfect. It conveys nothing of David’s flawless comic timing. For that, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

Occasionally a British idiom or pronunciation slipped by me. I omitted David’s mention of a relic that sounded like “the Holy Hand Grenade at Antioch” because I’m pretty sure medieval armies didn’t have hand grenades.

Once at the shrine, the pilgrims would pay money to go and see the holy relic. At Walsingham, for example, we are talking about a sealed jar containing the Virgin Mary’s milk. Nails were very popular, and bits of wood from the True Cross…. Durham [Cathedral] proudly boasted the body of Saint Cuthbert but also the head of Saint Oswald. At Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, they had a vial of Christ’s blood. At [the Abbey of] Fécamp in Normandy, they had Mary Magdalene’s entire arm… until Saint Hugh rather ruined it all by nibbling off a bit of her fingers….*

st-bridgetNone of these, of course, competed with the big one…. I speak, of course, of Christ’s foreskin. The Holy Foreskin, as it was known, turned up in 800 A.D. when Charlemagne presented it to Pope Leo. It was an object of great popular veneration, as you can imagine. Indeed, like any relic it was capable of performing miracles, so that even Saint Bridget was able to report that when an angel dropped bits of it on her tongue she had an orgasm, which, it appears, for Saint Bridget was a twenty-four-carat miracle….

But there was a problem….  Rival foreskins kept appearing, until eventually there were twenty-one Holy Foreskins spread around Christendom… [creating] something of a glut in the foreskin market…. Monks kept appearing in Rome demanding that the Pope make a ruling on which was the authentic foreskin. One theologian tried to solve the problem by claiming that the Holy Foreskin had ascended into Heaven to become the rings of Saturn…. Eventually the Church cracked… and in 1900 it became a crime worthy of excommunication to even talk of the Holy Foreskin. I await my Bull of Excommunication as we speak… but I give notice that any foreskins found lying around my house will be binned rather than venerated.

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* Saint Hugh—at that time Hugh of Lincoln; he wasn’t canonized until 1220.