Increase your English vocabulary by learning the sometimes shocking true meaning of seemingly innocent words
At the Wording Desk
It’s so Christmasy! But in its original Old English form mistletan, mistletoe means ‘shit-on-a-stick.’
The ancient druids held mistletoe sacred, hence an old common name for the plant is druid’s herb. The druids thought the plant grew miraculously from bird droppings. In fact mistletoe is a parasite sucking nourishment from the tree hosts that it infests. All in all, a curious plant to symbolize the birth of a god.
In Old High German Mist means ‘dung.’ English belongs to the West Germanic branch of Indo-European languages. Mistel in Old English was the name of the white berries of mistletoe. Mistel meant literally ‘shitling’ or ‘little dropping’ and tan was one of the Old English words for ‘twig’ or ‘stick.’ The Angles and the Saxons who spoke Old English may have borrowed the word from the Vikings whose language is now called Old Scandinavian and who had a word for mistletoe, mistelteinn ‘shit-twig.’
Long after the druids, botanists discovered that mistletoe can be propagated from feces dropped on upper tree branches by birds, after they have eaten the sticky, seed-rich, white berries.
But don’t think of this at all this Christmas when you’re standing under the mistletoe waiting to kiss your beloved.
Innocent Plant Names? Noooo.
Are all plant names sweet and gentle, summoning to mind Little Mary Green Thumb skipping merrily down her garden path clad in gingham frock and Victorian sun hat? Indeed not!
Often intruding into the purse-lipped purlieux of nineteenth-century science was “the old Adam,” as Victorians used to dub undue anatomical reference. For example, the root word of orchid means ‘testicle’ in ancient Greek. The flower that red-faced dudes pin to maidenly bosoms on prom nights was named after certain orchid species of ancient Attica which possessed twin roots resembling the human scrotum. Oh dear! Does macho claiming then lurk in the dating ritual where the male fastens a symbolic scrotum to the palpitant bust of his female prey? One hopes not.
Avocado is an early mangling by Spanish conquisatores of ahucatl, the word for ‘testicle’ in Nahuatl, an Aztecan language of Mexico and Central America. Vanilla flavouring is extracted from seed pods of an orchid first called vainilla in Spanish. Vainilla means ‘little vagina,’ named because the shape of the vanilla pods reminded a botanizing but lusty explorer of what he missed most. Vaina from the Latin word vagina is still in modern Spanish where it means ‘sheath for a sword,’ which was its prime meaning in early Latin, where vagina began as a harsh, sexist soldiers' joke term for pudenda muliebra.
And so the great pounding, copulative rhythm of the universe throbs its brute way even into the pristine chambers of botanical nomenclature, even to besmirch the innocent symbols of Christmastide.
Bill Casselman, December 18, 2016
Text copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman
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