Saturday, March 17, 2007


Rotten Pot

It's remarkable how many words meaning "miscellany" are etymologically related to food. The Spanish expression olla podrida and its French equivalent pot pourri, translated literally, mean "rotten pot," a kind of stew composed of whatever ingredients are handy. Metaphorically, they mean any disorganized collection. The word pot is also hidden in English hodge podge, a variant of which is hotch potch, originally hotch pot. In Latin, a lanx satura (whence our satire) means "full platter," and Italian salmagundi is a salad made of various ingredients. Italian pasticcio ("medley," "pastry cake," from pasta) is also behind our pastiche. Gallimaufry comes from French galimafrée, a hash or ragout. Farrago is a direct borrowing from a Latin word meaning "medley, mix of grains for animal feed," itself from far = "grain". Mishmash is a reduplication of mash, of which the Online Etymology Dictionary says:
late O.E. masc-wyrt "mash-wort, infused malt," from P.Gmc. *maisk- (cf. Swed. mäsk "grains for pigs," Ger. Maisch "crushed grapes," O.E. meox "dung, filth), from PIE *meigh- "to sprinkle" (cf. O.E. miscian "to mix," Skt. mehati "urinates," Gk. omeikhein, L. meiere "to urinate," Pol. miazga "sap"). Originally a word in brewing; general sense of "anything reduced to a soft pulpy consistency" is recorded from 1598. Short for mashed potatoes it is attested from 1904. The verb is O.E. mæscan, from the noun.
All are apt descriptions of the following jumble of observations and quotations.

Goethe's fictional Sorrows of Young Werther supposedly spawned several copy-cat real-world suicides. Now Dan Brown's silly book The Da Vinci Code has been implicated in suicides, too. Richard Savill, Monk's death linked to Da Vinci Code (Telegraph, March 22, 2006):
A monk may have leapt to his death from a monastery after reading The Da Vinci Code, it emerged yesterday.

Abbot Alan Rees, 64, a revered figure in the Benedictine community, fell 30ft from a second-storey balcony at Belmont Abbey in Herefordshire last October. The Swansea-born monk had suffered from depression for the past 12 years.

But at a recent inquest into his death, Fr Paul Stonham, the Abbey's replacement abbot, linked his last bout of depression to a novel. There is speculation that he was referring to The Da Vinci Code.
And now this:
A painter fascinated with best-selling conspiracy thriller The Da Vinci Code committed suicide after becoming convinced she was the subject of a real-life murder plot.

Caroline Eldridge, 38, moved to Italy to pursue her interest in Leonardo Da Vinci, but her mind became "muddled" by the mysteries surrounding his work, her father said.

She suffered paranoid delusions that she and her family were in danger "because of the knowledge that she had" of Leonardo after working on an exhibition about his paintings.

After repeatedly telling her family, "I'm not going to let them take me alive," she took an overdose of paracetamol.
Books can be dangerous in other ways, too. Composer Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) supposedly died when a book shelf fell over on him. In April, 2003 the newspaper Jutarnji List published a story about a 60 year-old mathematics professor from Zagreb, identified only by the initials "DK", who was trapped for three days by a pile of books. The Associated Press (Dec. 30, 2003) reported that Patrice Moore was trapped in his apartment for two days under a pile of books and papers. If I keep acquiring books at my current rate, a similar fate is likely to befall me.

Cf. also Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette. Reflections in Cultural History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), pp. 171-172:
In a tract of 1795, J.G. Heinzmann listed the physical consequences of excessive reading: "susceptibility to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."
I may just be a hypochondriac, but I think I have suffered at one time or another from most of these ailments (except for apoplexy and epilepsy).

Books and reading may have their dangers, but this delighful painting by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), entitled The Bookworm, well depicts the joys of an old bookman:

From the mail bag, in response to my post on stoning and adultery:
Dear Mike,

"... and I can't recall any examples of stoning as a punishment for adultery in Greco-Roman antiquity".

How about adulterer Paris's long-overdue coat of stone - 'lainon ... chitona' (Iliad 3, 55-6)?

There's also Pausanias 6, 6, 7:

"Odysseus, so they say, in his wanderings after the capture of Troy was carried down by gales to various cities of Italy and Sicily, and among them he came with his ships to Temesa. Here one of his sailors got drunk and raped a girl, for which offence he was stoned to death by the natives".

Shades of drunken Elpenor.


Eric Thomson

The armless statue of Venus de Milo warns us against what can happen if we bite our fingernails too much. Excessive nose-picking can also be bad for one's health. See, e.g., Salman Akhtar and Brian W. Hastings, "Life Threatening Self-Mutilation of the Nose," Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (Aug. 1978) 676-677, and James W. Jefferson and Trent D. Thompson, "Rhinotillexomania: Psychiatric Disorder or Habit?," Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (Feb. 1995) 56-59.

But Dr. Friedrich Bischinger has this to say about the health benefits of rhinotillexis in moderation:
Sinnvoller ist es zu bohren zu popeln - und, natürlich kann man dann auch besser atmen, das hängt ja auch von der Größe des Popels ab. Das ist auch eine mechanische Reinigung.


Ja also, wenn da die Herrschaften da in der Nase bohren, dann ist das ein völlig natürlicher Reflex, den ich aus medizinischer Sicht als nicht schlecht empfinde.Diese Reflexe sind durch unsere Zivilisation absolut verkümmert und verstümmelt und tragen zu der Entwicklung solcher neuen modernen Erkrankungen wesentlich bei.
I think I'd draw the line at swallowing the products of nasal excavation, however, despite the good doctor's reassuring words:
Auch das Verspeißen der, wie sagt der Tiroler, der Nasenrammel gehört zu etwas völlig Natürlichem. Generell ist Nasenpopelessen zwar etwas gesellschaftlich verpöntes, immunologisch aber ist es eine absolut sinnvolle und, auf leeren Magen, eine ergänzende Aktion.
One of my childhood friends went on to become a respected university professor and dean. In my mind's eye I can still picture him at age 7 or 8, as if it were yesterday, sitting at his little desk in Washington Street Elementary School, contentedly engaged in Nasenbohren and Nasenpopelessen.

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