Issue 185, page 1

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swell words

There we were, driving along the freeway, listening to a movie review on the radio. The film in question was The Italian Job which, the reviewer informed us, is about the theft of a large quantity of bouillon. We spent a few confused moments trying to visualize someone selling broth on the black market (How? Through brothels? "Hello, big boy... interested in some 'hot' soup?"), when it turned out that he meant bullion, after all

Bouillon is simply French for "broth" and comes from bouillir, "to boil", as does to boil itself. Bullion, meaning precious metal in mass, is a more mysterious word. It has been suggested that it, too, comes from bouillir but this seems a bit of a stretch as precious metals are only melted, not boiled. A word with an undoubted connection to bouillir is bouillabaisse, the name of a celebrated Provençal fish soup. Also, a person with a "boiling" temperament is said to be ebullient (literally, "boiling") from the Latin ebullire, "to boil".

Nowadays, when we parboil food we "partly boil" it but, originally, if it was parboiled it was "thoroughly boiled", from per- "through, thoroughly" + boil. But what are we to make of garboil? It means "hubbub" or "confusion" and comes from the Italian garbuglio. The -buglio is definitely from the Latin verb bullire, "to boil" but that gar- is anybody's guess. It is a splendid word, nonetheless.

What about the noun boil? Is that unpleasant affliction which the dictionary defines as "a hard, inflamed, suppurating tumour; a furuncle" related? Well, yes, it is, but somewhat remotely. Both boil-s are descendants of the Indo-European root *beu-, "to swell", as are the linguistically related pock and its plural pox. Pox spawned a huge family of specific poxes such as great pox (characterized by large swellings), small-pox or little-pox (characterized by small swellings), cow-pox, kine-pox or pap-pox (which gives cows swellings on their udders), hog-pox or swine pox (afflicting pigs), horse-pox, monkey-pox and even mouse-pox. Logically, then, one might suppose chickenpox to be a disease of hens and roosters but, of course, it isn't. The chicken- is either an allusion to the comparatively mild nature of the disease or from the notion that the pustules look like chickpeas (i.e. garbanzos). When you consider that the pustules do not look even remotely like garbanzos and that, even if they did, the disease would be called chickpea-pox, that latter notion seems patently absurd. Unfortunately, the suggestion that it is really a chicken-[hearted]-pox doesn't fully convince, either.

A poke is a bag (as in the expression "to buy a pig in a poke") and, as a word, it also comes from *beu-, this time via Norman French. Pouch and the modern French poche "pocket" are related words, which reminds us that a small poke was a pocket. Medieval bags were often closed by drawstrings which caused the bag or purse to wrinkle and fold as the opening diminished. When we imitate this action with our mouths we are said to purse or to pucker our lips, pucker being the frequentative form of poke. Anyone who plays a wind instrument has to learn the pucker which is specific to that instrument. It is called the embouchure, from bouche, French for mouth - yet another *beu- descendant.

Just in passing...

Furuncle is from the Latin furunculus, literally "a little thief" and was sometimes written froncle.  [Garboil, froncle.  If only we could remember this stuff when playing Scrabble.]

Just as the verb to pucker is a frequentative formed from the noun poke, the noun poker is the frequentative of the verb to poke. What a pleasant symmetry!

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Last Updated 06/03/03 11:24 PM