Thursday, July 25, 2013


Spicy Virgin Revisited

Dear Mike,

One man's schoolboy howler is obviously another man's paronomastic folk etymology.

In the constellation Virgo, the virgin holds an ear of wheat in her hand, and her brightest star is named Spica. Isidore of Seville in his Etymologies (XI.ii.21) says that "The term 'virgin' (virgo) comes from 'a greener (viridior) age,' just like the words 'sprout' (virga) and 'calf' (vitula)." (I quote the translation of Stephen A. Barney et al, CUP 2006, p.242).

As for the spicier aspects of the virgin, I have occasionally seen (in French Roman Catholic books) "spicilegium" mistranslated as "spice-box", a very Counter-Reformation reference. Alas, Googlebooks seems to be weak on 19th century French popular religion, and I do not find exact references for the examples I recall all too dimly. But here is one, new to me, from the Supplément au Dictionnaire Oeconomique of Noël Chomel (Paris 1743), in which spicilegium is glossed as an "amas de telle marchandise" i.e a "heap of spices".

As ever,

Ian [Jackson]

Isidore, Etymologies 11.2.21:
virgo a viridiori aetate dicta est, sicut et virga, sicut et vitula.
Cf. Servius on Vergil, Eclogues 3.30:
nam et vitula a viridiore aetate dicta est, sicut virgo.
Were Servius and Isidore completely wrong about the etymology of virgo? I haven't seen M. Runes, "Virgo," Indogermanische Forschungen 44 (1927) 151-152, but the summary in Classical Quarterly 21 (1927) 112 says:

See also Birgit Anette Olsen, "Fresh shoots from a vigorous stem: IE *uih1ró-," in Language in Time and Space: A Festschrift for Werner Winter on the Occasion of His 80th Birthday (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003), pp. 313-330 ("3. Latin virgō, virāgō and virga" on pp. 319-321).

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