Tuesday, August 26, 2008



I received a 2009 calendar as a birthday present, published by Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, an important source of rare, heirloom seeds. The calendar has attractive photographs of fruits, herbs, and vegetables, with informative descriptions and tasty recipes. I noticed what looks like a misprint on the calendar page devoted to the month of April and the herb basil:
The ancient Greeks and Romans thought basil would only grow if the gardener screamed wild curses and shouted intelligibly while planting the seed.
The same sentence occurs at http://www.foodreference.com/html/artbasil.html, but I suspect that "intelligibly" is a mistake for "unintelligibly." Cf. http://www.foodreference.com/html/f-basil.html:
Ancient Greek and Roman doctors believed that basil would grow only if its cultivators sowed the seeds while screaming wild curses and shouting unintelligibly.
What about the curses? I had never heard of this custom before. When I tried to find corroborating evidence from ancient writers, I discovered that Polyglot Vegetarian, Sowing Cumin and Basil, had already collected the relevant passages, with original texts and translations. To summarize, Theophrastus (Enquiry into Plants 7.3.3) and Plutarch (Convivial Questions 7.2.3) connect the custom of cursing with sowing cumin, Pliny (Natural History 19.36.120) with ocimum, and Palladius (On Farming 4.9) with rue.

Some authorities deny that ocimum (ὤκιμον) in ancient writers is the same as our basil (scientific name Ocimum basilicum) — see e.g. Berthold Laufer, Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran, with Special Reference to the History of Cultivated Plants and Products (Chicago, 1919 = Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 201, Anthropological Series XV.3), Appendix IV = The Basil, pp. 586-590.

It's safer to correct misprints on one's blog than out in the field. Jim K. drew my attention to an Associated Press story, from which I excerpt the following:
Two self-styled vigilantes against typos who defaced a more than 60-year-old, hand-painted sign at Grand Canyon National Park were sentenced to probation and banned from national parks for a year.

Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson pleaded guilty August 11 for the damage done March 28 at the park's Desert View Watchtower. The sign was made by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, the architect who designed the rustic 1930s watchtower and other Grand Canyon-area landmarks.

Deck and Herson, both 28, toured the United States this spring, wiping out errors on government and private signs. They were interviewed by NPR and the Chicago Tribune, which called them "a pair of Kerouacs armed with Sharpies and erasers and righteous indignation."

An affidavit by National Park Service agent Christopher A. Smith said investigators learned of the vandalism from an Internet site operated by Deck on behalf of the Typo Eradication Advancement League.
There but for the grace of God go I.

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