Eruca and Erucivorous
Bill Long 4/21/06
On The Way to Eructation (Belch)
Having had such good fortune in the previous essay with erubescent, I thought it best to continue along in the Century to see what colors and odors attract me, before settling down on eructation. I got no further than the next word, eruca, when I had to stop to get my bearings. Here is what I discovered.
The Century defines eruca as "an insect in the larval state; a caterpillar." It mentions that it is also a sort of "colewort" and requests that we look up "eruke." Eruke is simply listed as a "canker worm." But then there is the mysterious word Wyclif that follows, which means that this 14th century divine had used the term in translating the Bible into Middle English. Where do we have canker worms in the Bible? Of course, Joel 1, where infestations of various locusts and their relatives are recorded. Sure enough, the OED says that Wyclif used the term "eruke" (an Anglicization of eruca) in his rendering of Joel 1:4. "A locust ete the residue of eruke, that is, a worme of bowis." And this translation remained for hundreds of years, since the Douay (Catholic) Bible of 1609 translated this passage: "The residue of the eruke hath the locust eaten."
Eruca and Earwig
But the mystery thickens (does that mean it inspissates or it incrassates?--see the discussion here), when we have this quotation from a 1711 English grammar book: "Eruke from Eruca, this some turn to Ear-Wig, as if it took its Name from the Ear." The mystery of where we got the name "Ear-Wig," to describe the little creeping insect like the caterpillar, may be solved in this quotation. The Wikipedia article on the earwig, citing the OED, says that the earwig got its name from the popular story (where did it originate?) that it penetrates into the head through the ear. But why not look at the word earwig, which doesn't seem to have a clear origin until the 14th century (about the time of Wyclif), as being a Anglicization or "eruca." Then, since the English word "ear" relates not to the Latin root "e" but to the organ of hearing, a myth might have grown up about how it got its name. Enough for that, however. Oh, here are some pictures of earwigs. But before we leave the term, you should know that an "earwig" can also be defined as an "ear-whisperer" or "flatterer." "The earwigs around the throne so filled the king's mind with unrealistic notions that he became completely deluded." Somehow I much prefer this meaning of the term.
But the Latin word eruca also means "cabbage," which has led to the formation of the English word "erucic," meaning "of or pertaining to eruca." Indeed, its Latin name is Eruca sativa, also known as the "garden-rocket" (having nothing to do with NASA), which when young and tender is frequently eaten as a salad. The OED informs us that erucic acid (long chemical formula follows) is obtained by the saponification of the fixed oil of white mustard. Saponification? The verb saponify is a wonderful word whose meaning should be obvious to those who know some Romance languages: "to convert (a fat or an oil) into soap by combination with an alkali." Couldn't you imagine a swift-talking individual, a latter day Mrs. Malaprop, who might confuse personify and saponify? Thus, if she said, "He saponifies the image of a present-day lawyer," we might wonder if he is cleaning up the profession.
Eruciform and Erucivorous
Then there is the term eruciform, meaning "resembling a catepillar." But eruciform is so much like cruciform that the Rev. Spooner might have been heard to utter, "And then look at the apse of the Church and see the eruciform shape of our most sacred symbol." And, finally, the Century has a word which is lacking from the OED: erucivorous. Like other nouns ending in "vorous," it has to do with "eating" or "feeding on." Thus, something that is erucivorous feeds on caterpillars, as the larvae of ichneumon-flies and various birds.
I think I know why the word doesn't appear in the OED. The caterpillar lobby must have gotten to Mr. Murray late in the 19th century when he was putting together his OED and probably threatened him with mighty reprisals (perhaps an attack of the earwigs) unless he took erucivorous out of his dictionary. Just think: how would you like it if the dictionary contained a word that had to do with some other member of creation eating you? Don't you think it would give ideas to these larvae of ichneumon flies? If they never knew about the term, perhaps their natural inclinations to eat the caterpillars would be stifled. Isn't this behind the theory of censorship of words and literature generally? If you don't let people know what others do or have done, especially in the sexual or verbal arena, you don't "educate" unsuspecting others about what they too might do.
But the Century was put together by brash Americans about 110 years ago--Americans who believed that scientific analysis of the world required a sense of completeness in description of terms. Thus, erucivorous is there. And now you know it. Click here for an interesting article on some Africans who eat caterpillars. These people practice erucivory.
Having shared all this material with you, I think I will have to check all around my pillows tonight when I go to sleep.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long