Thursday, January 27, 2011

That really ought not to be a word

During one of my editing slogs a few weeks back I came upon a word I didn't know.  An English word, that is.  An English word that actually exists, rather than a product of careless misspelling or tireless Chinglish inventiveness.

I think this last happened to me in 1992.  I was quite taken aback.


Any ideas?

Well, the 'legitimacy' - or, at any rate, the common currency - of the word may be in doubt. 'Esculent' is a scientific word for 'edible', particularly applied to plants.  (I wonder if, two or three hundred years ago, there was some kind of face-off between these two words - a heated debate in The Royal Society, perchance? - which resulted in 'edible' being adopted for everyday use, while poor old 'esculent' was relegated to being a private joke amongst botanists:  "Well, I know this new variety of palm I found in Borneo doesn't look very appetising; it is, in fact, utterly foul-tasting and kind of woody; but, surprisingly, it really is esculent." Or, as the timid curate might have said,"Oh no, my lord Bishop, parts of it are esculent.")

'Esculentism', however, is unknown - to the Internet, at least.  I am not able to check whether any of the major English dictionaries deigns to include the word.  It appears to be a coinage of the wondrously eccentric Joseph Needham, a Cambridge academic who devoted most of his life to an exhaustive study of the history of science in China (an interesting biography of him by Simon Winchester came out a couple of years ago).  He used it to designate the science of pioneering improbable foods - something they have a long tradition of in China, especially in the south (the emphasis on rice cultivation seems to foster high population density but fairly poor average levels of nutrition, hence creating a lot of pressure to find supplementary food sources in the natural environment).

You learn something new every day, don't you?


JES said...

Ooooh, shiny new object... I love stories like this!

I didn't get any hits on the -ism form, but the -ist form turned up several on Google Books. (Most of those have no preview available, though, or at best only a snippet view.) One of the previewable books includes this tantalizing passage, visible on the search-results page but not when actually previewing it:

(Extensive notes on wild vegetables) was completed by another member of the esculentist movement, the hermit monk Bao Shan. Here we find a picture (Fig. 10) illustrating an entry called...

It appears to come from a Latin word esculentus, used as a species modifier in the names of numerous plants (e.g. Hibiscus esculentus, okra).

All of which I'm pretty sure you already turned up; I'm just rummaging out loud. :)

In a paper I wrote for a college Latin class, I wanted a word that summed up "everything which one could include under the umbrella of 'writing style'" -- something like that. No Internet back then, of course, and the paper was due too imminently for me to trek across campus to the library. So I just reached for the cheap paperback thesaurus, whence I lazily plucked belletristic. I knew belles lettres, and figured that must be a showy coinage based on that phrase. Dropped it into the paper without further thought.

The paper in question was something of a satirical treatment of academics specializing in Latin (I know, I know...). Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, it got under the skin of the professor: in the margins, in red ink, he kept issuing challenges (apparently seriously) to my goading. He'd circled "belletristic" and said, "I am unfamiliar with this word. Do you mean 'bellicose'?" Obviously I'm still laughing, nearly 40 years later, because I "knew" a word which he didn't.

OTOH the whole incident was also a little embarrassing, at least in retrospect. It was a reasonably good word to use in that context, but it had been a really sloppy use of the thesaurus. I got to be something of a thesaurus snob, sniffing around in the prose of newspaper opinion columnists and, later, my own students for those passages where they'd plainly done exactly as I had.

I think you've alluded before to the frustrations of explaining the nuances in the connotations of English "synonyms" to non-English speakers. But I love the variety.

Froog said...

I confess I'd never come across belletristic, and I DON'T LIKE IT. I suspect it of being one of those inelegant and unnecessary coinages of which American English seems to be so strangely fond.

To me, it suggests the science of belletrics, but nothing at all to do with belles-lettres. If you needed to make up a noun for a producer of belles-lettres, it would surely have to be belles-lettrist or the ungainly but still recognisable bellelettrist. Belletrist departs too far from its source to be immediately identifiable.

I'm glad you had fun with esculents. I hope you got the "curate's egg" reference; I thought it would tickle your punny bone.

Froog said...

By the by, 'Propitious Esculents' - the title of the article I linked to by way of illustration of the word - was probably once a Googlewhack... but since John Reader used the phrase as a subtitle for his a history of the potato, it's started cropping up all over the place - mostly in reviews of this book.