A reader in California tells me he has encountered a new word, one he was unable to define: coloquintida. He found it in a sermon preached in 1698. “The context wasn’t much help for determining its meaning,” he writes, “and my 2-volume mini-OED has gone missing. But, I'll figure it out.”
I’ll try to help. First, from Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary: “The fruit of a plant of the same name, brought from the Levant, about the bigness of a large orange, and often called bitter apple. Its colour is a sort of golden brown: its inside is full of kernels, which are to be taken out before it be used. Both the seed and pulp are intolerably bitter. It is a violent purgative, of considerable use in medicine.” That is, a powerful laxative.
Another word for coloquintida is colocynth. Here the OED is helpful: “the Bitter-apple (Citrullus colocynthis), a widely-cultivated plant of the Gourd family, the fruit of which is about the size of an orange, and contains a light spongy and extremely bitter pulp, furnishing the well-known purgative drug.”
Probably the best-known use of coloquintida is spoken by the cunningly oily Iago in Act I, Scene 3 of Othello: “These Moors are changeable in their wills: fill thy purse with money:--the food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida. She must change for youth: when she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice: she must have change, she must: therefore put money in thy purse.”
Rereading Iago’s words, I found myself irritated with him yet again. Macbeths and Lears are rare. Iago is a common type – a banal conniver, malign gossip, careerist, squealer, fink. He brings to mind the informant who ratted on Osip Mandelstam in late 1933, after the poet gave a private reading of his “Stalin Epigram” to friends. Mandelstam was arrested the following spring and sentenced to internal exile. In his Lectures on Shakespeare (ed. Arthur Kirsch, Princeton University Press, 2000), Auden writes:
“Most Iagos on stage are impossible because they act sinister, like regular villains, so that no one will trust them. Iago must be plain and inconspicuous, absolutely ordinary, someone who could be chosen as a Secret Service man today, ‘honest’ because he is what he looks like. Yet he must dominate the play by his will. Iago also says nothing poetically or intellectually interesting.”