Friday, June 27, 2014

`Chiefly Used for Carrying Fruit, Vegetables'

On the desk in my boss’ office sat a shallow, oval-shaped basket made of curved wooden strips. In it were eggplants and tomatoes, arranged with artful negligence as though by a still-life painter. “Help yourself,” she said, but I wanted to know about the basket, fashioned from contrasting bands of pale willow and darker sweet chestnut. “It’s a trug, ”she said, and I thought she said “drug,” which didn’t quite make sense. Her husband was born in England. During a visit to Sussex some years ago, they visited a shop where trugs are manufactured by hand, and she bought two of them. What impressed me was the use of so blunt a word, new to me, for so lovely an object. In trug I hear echoes of something old and buried underground, perhaps became of dug and jug. (And my boss’ surname is Lugg.) 

The OED suggests trug may be a variant of trough, as in horse-trough. The first definition is “an old local measure for wheat, equal to two-thirds of a bushel.” Second, and also related, is “a shallow wooden tray or pan to hold milk; also, a tray or hod for mortar; also…a wooden coal-box.” Finally, here it is: “a shallow oblong basket made of wooden strips with a handle from side to side, chiefly used for carrying fruit, vegetables, and the like; also trug-basket.” The earliest citation from the Athenaeum in 1862: “A trug-basket,..a vessel..almost peculiar to the county of Sussex. Some such trugs were sent to the Great Exhibition of 1851.” Kipling, who lived in Sussex in the final decades of his life, uses the word memorably in the last book he wrote, Something of Myself, published a year after his death, in 1937. He describes a bricklayer’s gift for locating underground water with a divining rod or dowsing stick: “when he held one fork of the hazel Y and I the other, the thing bowed itself against all the grip of my hand over an unfailing supply.” He goes on, and seems to confirm my otherwise mysterious association of trug with an archaeological dig: 

“Then, out of the woods that know everything and tell nothing, came two dark and mysterious Primitives. They had heard. They would sink that well, for they had the `gift.’ Their tools were an enormous wooden trug, a portable windlass whose handles were curved, and smooth as ox-horns, and a short-handled hoe. They made a ring of brickwork on the bare ground and, with their hands at first, grubbed out the dirt beneath it. As the ring sank they heightened it, course by course, grubbing out with the hoe, till the shaft, true as a rifle-barrel, was deep enough to call for their Father of Trugs, which one brother down below would fill, and the other haul up on the magic windlass. When we stopped, at twenty-five feet, we had found a Jacobean tobacco-pipe, a worn Cromwellian latten spoon and, at the bottom of all, the bronze cheek of a Roman horse-bit.” 

Trug has two other apparently unrelated  meanings: prostitute or trull, and catamite. The latter word was made famous by Anthony Burgess in the first sentence of his 1980 novel Earthly Powers:It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” And in German, trug means, among other things, “swindle” or “deception.” Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is connected.

1 comment:

ghostofelberry said...

In German "tragen" is to wear or carry, and "trug" is the equivalent of our Past Simple "wore" or "carried". As a noun it's also deception, swindle, etc.