Friday, November 13, 2009

`To Have Once Been a Brilliant Picture'

One of the essential joys of reading is the serendipitous encounter with a new word. This started for me in the seventh grade when I first studied Latin and found satisfaction in figuring out the etymologies of Latin-based English words – celerity, procrastination, sylvan, spelunker. It satisfied a puzzle-solving instinct but also amplified my sense of the resonance of language. I liked the idea of adding layers of meaning to sentences in a quiet way. Poets have done this for centuries – consider Milton, Hopkins and Hill.

I’m reading Monsignor Ronald Knox (1959), one of the few titles by Evelyn Waugh I had left unread. Earlier this year I read Knox’s masterpiece, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (1950), and reread Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Knox Brothers (1977). Knox (1888-1957) named Waugh his literary executor and authorized his friend and fellow Catholic convert to write his biography. On page 40 of the first American edition of Waugh’s book, he described the days when Knox and his siblings lived at their Uncle Lindsey’s vicarage in Creeton:

“The village can be seen from the main railway-line and, so surveying it, Ronald later recorded in a newspaper article fond, quite commonplace memories of paddock, pony, beehives, a swing, a damson-tree [subspecies of the plum – from its fruit slivovitz is distilled], the stone where he sharpened his slate pencil, the peculiar delight of plucking the `night-caps’ [the calyx] off the eschscholtzias (a plant which early fascinated him by the complexity of its spelling); the drama of a man gored to death by a bull and of the inquest held in the village school after a railway accident.”

“Eschscholtzias” reads like a railway accident of its own – a fatal collision between Latin and German. I understand Knox’s fascination – how unlikely and uneuphonious a word. A little online browsing cleared things up and made them interestingly more complicated. Eschscholtzia is a genus of papaveraceous plants (about 10 species) – that is, poppies, including Eschscholtzia californica, the California poppy and that state’s state flower.

The Teutonic echo issues from Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz (1793-1831), a botanist, physician and zoologist of German ancestry born in the Estonian region of the Russian Empire. He explored the Pacific, Alaska, California, Brazil, Chile and both sides of the Bering Straits. His story, a rousing mixture of exploration and study, recalls Darwin’s (and perhaps Nabokov’s, in his lepidopteral mode), and I would love to read his biography. The nineteenth century seems generously populated with such people. Besides poppies, Eschscholtz lent his name to beetles, lizards and Eschscholtz Atoll in the Marshall Islands (renamed Bikini Atoll when the U.S. began testing nuclear weapons there in 1946).

Waugh and Knox remind us of Emerson’s claim in “The Poet”:

“The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

“Fossil poetry,” yes, but also fossil history and fossil biography. Taking a word out for a walk is a crash course in paleontology.


William A. Sigler said...

Etymology forensics on a Friday -- ah, felicity!

I'm especially interested in your reference to bikini. The common perception is that the female swim wear was named after the nuclear tests because of its destructive effect on the male, er, psyche. But no one has demonstrated this for sure--the connection remains a mystery. We do know that the Bikini Atoll was re-named from "Pikinni," which is what the natives called it (continuing that adorable Anglo-American etymological tradition of showing great sensitivity to cultures after obliterating them). The literal meaning of Pikinni is surface (pik) coconut (ni). Surface coconut? The mystery deepens.

William A. Sigler said...

Oh, forgot to mention—the California poppy (gorgeous, by the way, when it coats in spring the rough brown hills here with orange-yellow blooms) is a hallucinogenic drug (the seeds are). Yes, the California state flower gets you high.

Sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. Who says etymology isn't fun?