Sunday, September 21, 2014

`In the Squamous Heads of Scabious'

Hybridized citrus trees grow in the yard behind our house and hang over the wooden fence. The fruit is attractive – brightly green, yellow and orange – and fragrant, but inedible. A retired physician whose hobby was tree-grafting had crossed lemons with grapefruit and other unholy minglings, and the resulting fruit is bitter and pulpy. Even the dog won’t play with them. In addition, the branches are spiked with long wooden thorns and the bark peels off in sheets like sunburned skin. I was reading bound volumes of old USDA bulletins about pomology and grafting, and found a reference to desquamation, not a word I know but one I could figure out from context. It means peeling or scaling. 

In his Dictionary, Johnson gives us “the act of scaling foul bones,” which seems a cousin to what I was after, then I consulted the OED and found what I was looking for: “the removal of scales or of any scaly crust” (accompanied by a Johnson citation) and “a coming off in scales or scaly patches; esp. that of the epidermis, as the result of certain diseases; exfoliation, ‘peeling.’” That confirmed my sunburned-skin simile. For the final usage it gave “that which is cast off in scales,” citing one of Johnson’s definitions of rust: “The red desquamation of old iron.” 

I finally heard the echo and realized I was familiar with squamous cell carcinoma, having worked for several years as a medical reporter. The root for this growing family of cognates – for instance, squamify, squamose, squamiform, though not Squamish -- is the Latin squama, “scale.” The OED gives ten related definitions for squamous, including this: “Bot. Furnished or covered with, composed of, squamæ or scales.” We’re not quite back to my Dr. Moreau-esque citrus tree, but the OED does reunite us with an old friend, Sr. Thomas Browne, credited with introducing more than eight hundred words into English. Here he is in Chapter III of The Garden of Cyrus: “In the squamous heads of Scabious, Knapweed, and the elegant Jacea Pinea, and in the Scaly composure of the Oak-Rose, which some years most aboundeth.”

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