or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Eyes Have It

A friend in Toronto threatened to send out a search party, so I'm back. But no promises. I don't have that much to write about these days, because the pleasurable sense of outrage and scorn is gone: Slate and the Globe and Mail can print as many stupid, senseless typos as they want, and I just shrug.

However, there is still etymology to hold my interest, and here is a particularly juicy one which I can't believe I never noticed before.

Earlier this year I had a horrific, unending bout of flu, or a cold, or both at the same time, that brought me down for weeks. I had gotten a flu shot the two years previous, but didn't last year, and look where it got me. So I'm heading out for one later today; I don't need a repeat of that hellishness.

Now, what we call a shot and what the British amusingly call a jab is medically called an inoculation, and that is a very strange word, because the prefix is obviously Latin "in-", which makes sense because it's something put inside your body, but the middle, "-ocula-", cannot possibly be what it looks like, because it seems to be related to "binoculars" and "oculist", which is to say that is has to do with the eyes, which is clearly impossible.

Ah, but there is more than one kind of eye. Potatoes have eyes, too, and this sense is the ocularity of an inoculation. Inoculation originally referred to the grafting of a plant bud, or eye, into another. Say you have a tree with a particularly strong root system but indifferent fruit, and another with excellent fruit but some other inferior quality which makes it unsuitable for growth and survival: you can implant a bud (called a "scion", originally a plant twig or budding, later offspring in the form of a son) from the weaker tree into the stronger, and get the best of both.

And you can also produce a weakened version of a disease, inject it into a person to kick-start their immune system, and so prevent them from getting a more virulent version in the future. This is what Edward Jenner did after he proved that deliberately infecting people with cowpox immunized them against the related but far worse smallpox. Implanting a living bud into someone or something and having the union of the two produce something stronger than either: that's inoculation.


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