or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, January 05, 2007

Head Games

The word that interests me today is one that I can't find an etymology for: I have a minimally educated guess, but no real answer. The only reason I'm even mentioning it is because it's linked to a mind-bendingly dreadful thing which I naturally want to share with everyone.

There is a fungus called cordyceps which grows in the rainforests of Cameroon. It infects a particular species of ant, and that species only. When the ant is infected, its brain changes: the ant is compelled to skitter up the nearest tree or vine (something it has never done before in its life), grab on tightly with its mandibles, and await its doom. Its doom is that cordyceps, having invaded its brain, proceeds to grow into a spike which thrusts out of the ant's head, develops a fruiting body, and bursts, spraying more spores into the air, which shower down, there to infect even more ants.

How baroque! How perverse! How appalling!

And since you probably want to see this actually happening, here's the video, to which I was led by the ever-dependable Boingboing.net.

The mystery, of course, is the origin of "cordyceps". I can't find an etymology for the damned thing, and I really looked, too. Just not hard enough, I suppose.

The second half, "-ceps", must certainly be from Greek "kephale", "head", which gives us such words as "biceps", the two-headed muscle in the arm, and indeed "cephalogenic". (It can't be related to "forceps", which is unrelated to "kephale" and is taken from the Latin name for fireplace tongs.)

But the first half? The only thing I can find that makes even a particle of sense is "kordule" or "kordyle", which is the Greek word for "club". If that's correct--no guarantees!--then "cordyceps" means "club-headed", which, once you've seen the video, seems to fit.


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