or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, March 24, 2008

Just Swell

I am on my third consecutive cold.

Two weeks ago I mentioned that I had a cold, which, I would imagine, I caught from Jim, who was under the weather a few days before I was. (I foolishly thought I wouldn't catch his germs.) That one started to fade after about a week; by then, Jim had caught another one from someone at work, and since my immune system had probably taken a hit, I caught it, too. (It had different symptoms from the first one.) And then, just as that one began to dwindle, I caught yet another one from Jim. And all this after a whole winter of having managed to avoid any kind of illness altogether! (Ordinarily I am enviably, disgustingly healthy.)

One of the manifestations of the third cold was that my uvula swelled up. Uvulitis, it's called, and I've had it before, and it's maddening. That little dangle of flesh expands to the size of the first joint-and-a-half of your pinky finger, and suddenly it's there all the time, tickling the back of your throat every time you move. And that's just when you're standing. When you try to lie down to sleep--well, forget about trying to sleep. You can feel the obscene, gravity-bound thing flopping against your various mucous membranes, and it's horrible. You can't concentrate on anything else: you certainly can't sleep. The only way I managed to get any sleep the last two night was to drug myself insensible. (Oh, nothing illegal: I am too wussy for that. It was Robax Platinum, which contains a muscle relaxant that does the job with enviable efficiency.)

The swelling is finally receding, which means I can focus on the important things, such as: where does the word "uvula" come from, anyway?

Well, the "-ula" suffix is a hint that it's of Latin origin. It, and its French offshoot "-ule", are diminutive suffixes: they're applied to something to make it little, as in "molecule" and "formula".

As you will have noticed if you checked out that last link, I already mentioned "uvula": the first part of it is from Latin "uva", "grape", so a uvula is a little grape. "Uva" is also "grape" in Italian and Spanish.

But in French, "grape" is "raisin" (a word English adopted as the name of a dried grape, just as we adopted the French word for "plum", which is "prune", to mean a dried plum). Now, where on Earth did the French get that from?

Latin, surprisingly. "Raisin" went through a number of changes to get where it is, but it started out as Latin "raceme", which is also an English word--not much used except by botanists--referring to flowers which have many florets springing from a single stalk, as seen in lily-of-the-valley

and bleeding-heart

plants. In Latin, a raceme was merely a cluster of something, as grapes or berries.

And while we're at it, where did English get "grape" from? My first guess was that we had stolen it from the Italians, who have the word "grappa" to mean a kind of raw brandy made from pomace, the fruit-pulp leftovers from the juicing process (in this case, the remains of crushed wine grapes).

As it turns out, splendidly, Italian took "grappa" from the Germanic tongues, from the same word that gave us "grape". And just as splendidly, "grape" is from the same source as "grapnel", a kind of hooked anchor. ("Grapple" is from a different source, but has been affected by "grapnel" in the sense of "grappling iron".) A grape is a grape because a grapnel of sorts was originally used in harvesting, a hooked implement which pulled the bunches of fruit from their vines.


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