Tuesday, March 27, 2012

`Fetid, Olivaceous, Semiliquid Matter'

When I’m lucky I can trace my first awareness of a new word to a specific time and place. In the case of  fetid, a deliciously noisome word that means precisely what it sounds like, I encountered it in high school while reading Eudora’s Welty’s 1946 novel Delta Wedding:

“She crossed the bayou bridge, almost treading on the butterflies lighting and clinging on the blazing, fetid boards, and walked leisurely down the other side of the old Marmion path (when there had been a river bridge up this far) through the trees.”

Words trail associations, not all of them logical or linear. Strictly speaking, fetid means “having an offensive smell; stinking,” but the word in my private dictionary suggests dampness and rot, the stench of decomposing vegetable matter. When I first encountered Welty’s word more than forty years ago, I associated it with a picnic ground we visited as kids. In a heavily shaded part of the woods where the ground never dried, someone had spanned a marshy spot with a heavy plank. Memory nailed Welty’s boards to my plank in the middle of that black swamp, and the whole multi-sensory experience returns each time I re-encounter fetid (and sometime foetid).

It happened again on Sunday as I was looking up something in the National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Wildflowers of North America (Sterling Publishing Co., 2010). It’s a fat, glossy, pleasingly heavy volume with thousands of color photographs – a veritable web site in your hand. In the species index I noticed a marvelous flower name – fetid-adder’s-tongue, with two species (California and Oregon) in the genus Scoliopus. That word reminded me of scoliosis, and the etymology confirmed it: skolios is Greek for “curved.” In his terse entry for the California species, the field guide’s author, David M. Brandenburg, notes: “Flowers ill-scented.”

That got me curious about another famously smelly wildflower, one I’m particularly fond of – skunk cabbage, a winter miracle flowing with antifreeze that burns and blooms through the snow. Sure enough, the Latin name is Symplocarpus foetidus, and Brandenburg says: “Plants are ill-scented, with somewhat skunklike odor.” In his journal entry for Oct. 16, 1856, Thoreau noted his discovery of “a rare and remarkable fungus”:

“It may be divided into three parts, pileus, stem, and base,--or scrotum, for it is a perfect phallus…There was at first a very thin delicate white collar (or volva?) about the base of the stem above the scrotum. It was as offensive to the eye as to the scent, the cap rapidly melting and defiling what it touched with a fetid, olivaceous, semiliquid matter.”

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