Thursday, April 19, 2012

`Love Not Our Lice as Well as Our Children'

“I always get a kick out of anatiferous, `producing ducks.’”

And I get a kick out of readers who find dictionaries a reliable source of comedy. The speaker is Jack Lynch, the eighteenth-century scholar at Rutgers University who edited a popular edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary in 2004. An interviewer has asked him to name his favorites among Johnson’s entries. The etymology of anatiferous, a word my spell-check software doesn’t recognize, is Latin and quite literal: anas (“duck”) + -fero (“producing”) = anatiferous. The Oxford English Dictionary deems the word “Obs. rare,” and offers a convoluted definition: 

“Producing ducks or geese; i.e. producing barnacles, formerly supposed to grow on trees, and dropping off into the water below, to turn to ‘Tree-geese’…whence also the trivial name of the Barnacle Lepas anatifera.”

The only citation given by the OED is from Pseudodoxia Epidemica, by Sir Thomas Browne (whose biography Johnson wrote): “Anatiferous trees, whose corruption breaks forth into Bernacles.”

The passage is from Book 3, Chapter XII, “Of the Phoenix,” devoted to animal reproduction and the now-discredited notion of spontaneous generation:

“And this will also hold in generations equivocal, and such as are not begotten from Parents like themselves; so from Frogs corrupting, proceed not Frogs again; so if there be anatiferous Trees, whose corruption breaks forth into Bernacles, yet if they corrupt, they degenerate into Maggots, which produce not them again. For this were a fusion of corruptive and seminal production, and a frustration of that seminal power committed to animals at the creation. The problem might have been spared, `Why we love not our lice as well as our children?’”

Another question I have often pondered.

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