or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, April 08, 2005


Back when I was a university student I had an English teacher, a charmingly eccentric and aged maiden lady, who told the class how a colleague shocked some students of hers by referring to her as "my pearl". (This will have been some time ago, when such familiarity could still have the power to shock.)

Here in North America, we pretty universally pronounce "margarine" with a soft "-g-", as if it were a "-j-", like the first half of "marjoram". It wasn't always so, though (and as far as I know still isn't in Great Britain); the prescribed pronunciation had a hard "-g-". The reason for this is that one of the compounds involved in the fabrication of margarine was margaric acid, and that word was pronounced with that hard "-g-".

Now; what of margarine? "Margaric" is an adjective meaning "pearly", and crystals of margaric acid have a pearly sheen. Margarine was originally called oleomargarine: "oleo-" will be familiar from such words as "petroleum", "petr-" meaning "rock" and "-oleum" meaning "oil", and "-ine" plays two roles, as a common chemical suffix ("bromine") and as a suffix meaning "like" ("aquiline", "like an eagle").

And where do "margaric" and its relatives come from? That's a matter of some small debate, but it seems to be along these lines: the word "margarites", "pearl", is possibly of Iranian origin in the distant past, adopted by the Greeks (and then the Romans), and over time, in its travels through German and English, pummeled into a slightly different shape through the familiar offices of folk etymology to better resemble the pair of words "mare", sea, and "greot", a small stone, which is the source of our word "grit" (and also "grits", cooked ground hominy, and the clearly related "groats", not to mention "grout"). A small sea stone: a pearl.

From this through French comes "marguerite", a small daisy; through Spanish, "margarita"; and from Middle English, "Margaret". So the name Margaret literally means "pearl", and this is why my teacher's colleague could forthrightly bestow such a name on her; because in a sense, it really was her name.


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