or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Reader's Digest

Regarding Sunday's post, Frank writes:

I remember reading in A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson that it actually was originally wistaria, but wisteria was eventually made to conform to freesia and gardenia. I think. It's been a while since I read it. But I DO know there's a story to it.

There is a story to it, but I don't think it's the story you remember. (I do that sort of thing all the time, for whatever it's worth.) "Wisteria". despite its typo, already does conform to "freesia" and "gardenia", being, despite the spelling change, the namesake with "-ia" attached to it. (Admittedly, Freese had his name truncated for "freesia", and that is a mystery, because Adam Buddle's name wasn't similarly truncated for buddleia, which would have done just as well being spelled buddlia.)

Bryson does mention wisteria, but he doesn't make any mention of the reason its spelling deviates from that of its namesake, Dr. Wistar. I only know this because, though I don't have a print copy of the book, the full text of "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is available online. (I discovered this when I Googled "wistaria Bill Bryson"; innocent that I am, I didn't even know that such a thing existed. It's wrong and it breaks copyright, of course, but the site is in Russia so I don't suppose there's anything that can be done about it. It certainly makes it easy to search the text.)

There are 11 mentions of Wistar's name in the book, mostly in reference to the fact that he had a dinosaur bone in his hands and failed to figure out what it was, thereby missing his chance to be the one who discovered the existence of dinosaurs. Here's the only thing Bryson has to say about the name of the plant:

In that same year, 1818, Caspar Wistar died, but he did gain a certain unexpected immortality when a botanist named Thomas Nuttall named a delightful climbing shrub after him. Some botanical purists still insist on spelling it wistaria.

Here's what Answers.com has to say:

The genus was named after Dr. Caspar Wistar (1761 - 1818), a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. As a consequence, the name is sometimes given as "Wistaria", but the spelling Wisteria is conserved under the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

The OED has no listing at all for "wisteria", subsuming it under "wistaria" instead (which suggests that that's the more common spelling in British English), and then complicates matters by saying that it's named after "Caspar Wistar (or Wister)". I haven't found any evidence that Caspar Wistar ever spelled his name "Wister", but, confusingly, there was an American botanist name of John Caspar Wister, who was related to the Caspar Wistar whose name was donated to the plant, so clearly at some point the family's name underwent a change.

And, finally, the opinion of the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1819, formed by botanist Thomas Nuttall, Eng. botanist, in allusion to Amer. anatomist Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) of Philadelphia. The -e- apparently is a misprint.


In response to an older post about swearing, James Baquet writes:

About "someone somewhere thinks that English-language swearing is ludicrous": A Japanese friend told me that calling each other various body parts would be nonsensical in Japanese. True, she said, you COULD call someone, say, an asshole, but it would have the force of calling someone an elbow in English!

I knew it!

It just makes sense. A culture's oaths are going to be a reflection of what it considers taboo. When tribal fighting devolved into cannibalism on Rapa Nui, one curse that evolved ran along the lines of, "Your grandmother's flesh sticks in my teeth!" That would just sound bizarre and gross, but nearly meaningless, in many cultures; it certainly wouldn't have any force in ours. Ancestral cannibalism just doesn't enter into people's minds as a distant possibility, and so a curse like that is as shocking as saying that someone fell out of a tree. On the other hand, if you are much more relaxed about bodily functions than English speakers seem to be, then calling someone a prick or a douchebag isn't going to be much of a curse.

One thing's for sure, though: every language is going to have them. You have to have a way to express extremities of emotion, and however liberated or uninhibited your culture, there's going to be something that pushes a button, something you shouldn't say in polite company. (I bet, without any actual evidence--someone prove me wrong!--that parentage figures into most cultures' swearing somehow: suggesting that someone's mother is promiscuous--"Son of a whore!"--or that one's father isn't one's father--"You bastard!"--has to be on most anybody's list.)


Blogger D.J. said...

If you really want to get into this sort of thing, you have to read the scholarly journal about swearing, _Maledicta_.


It's the kind of fascinating that makes you need a shower afterwards. The Straight Dope did a column with some of the greatest hits, if you don't have the time to go wading through all the back issues:


"Ulithian (Ulithi is a coral atoll in the Pacific): Falfulul silom, 'Your mother's pubic tattooing!'" Ouch, zing!

I get the impression that there's a very limited number of targets: Yo' momma/yo' daddy if yo' momma can remember who he was. Blasphemy against whatever is sacred. The insult direct, e.g. "You're funny-lookin'." And disgust, for whatever is considered disgusting by the culture. But outside of those categories, I don't know that a curse would have enough juice to stick. Have I missed any?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

Well, I DID say I might be remembering wrongly.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009 10:40:00 PM  

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