Friday, July 12, 2019


Parsley and Swine's Snout

Robert Browning (1812-1889), "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," second stanza:
At the meal we sit together;
    Salve tibi! I must hear
Wise talk of the kind of weather,
    Sort of season, time of year:
Not a plenteous cork crop: scarcely
    Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt;
What's the Latin name for "parsley"?

    What's the Greek name for "swine's snout"?
Richard Wear, "Further Thoughts on Browning's Spanish Cloister," Victorian Poetry 12.1 (Spring, 1974) 67-70 (at 69-70):
Lawrence's nescience is more flagrantly revealed by his question at line fifteen, "What's the Latin name for 'parsley'?" The word he seeks—petroselinum—is one a Latin speaker ought to know. Certainly Lawrence's gusto at table and his dedication to horticulture should have made him familiar with such a popular herb, and if nothing else, the Greek stem, petros (source of Peter), should stick in the mind of an educated Christian. The speaker, conscious of Lawrence's ignorance, follows the question about parsley with the contemptuous gloss: "What's the Greek name for Swine's Snout?"

The speaker's choice of words is additionally revealing. Quite probably his reference to Greek was stimulated by his knowledge of the etymology of the Latin word in question, thus emphasizing his preoccupation with intellectual trivia. Furthermore, his mention of Swine's Snout is more than just a sneer: in keeping with the botanical subject of Lawrence's question, it is a play upon the name of a common weed, the dandelion, called in Latin rostrum porcinum, or Swine's Snout. The pun redounds upon the speaker, for his is the swinish attitude, whereas Lawrence's nature is appropriately reflected in petroselinum, a useful herb the name of which evokes religious memories. On the other hand, the speaker's question does pose a real pedagogical challenge, for indeed there seems to be no Greek equivalent of either rostrum porcinum or dandelion. Even the weed's botanical name, Taraxacum, is not Greek (though it is tempting, considering the speaker's state of mind, to see a connection with ταραχή, the root of several words indicating disorder and psychological disturbance).
To the extent that I understand this, I find it unconvincing. I'd make two points. First, a Latin speaker would probably call parsley apium (Vergil, Eclogues 6.68, etc.), not the Greek borrowing petroselinum (Pliny, Natural History 20.47.118). Second, one could render swine's snout in Greek as ὑὸς ῥύγχος. Compound forms of ὗς usually start with ὑο-, e.g. ὑοβοσκός (swineherd), ὑομουσία (swine's music), ὑοπώλης (dealer in pigs), but cf. ὑοσκύαμος (henbane).

See John Sargeaunt's Latin version (with his note) in Classical Review 20.8 (November, 1906) 414-415:
Cenanti ille mihi cubat ad latus; instat ineptae,
    'Salue' cum dictumst, garrulitatis homo;
Vt contristet hiemps, aestas ut torreat, annum,
    Qua pluuia uento sole sit hora, crepat.
'Suber,' ait, 'uereor tenui ne cortice fallat;
    Horna quidem gallas uix, puto, quercus habet:
Dic, sodes, apium Graece quid dicitur?' — Ohe,
    Dic, quid hyosrhynchus dicitur Hebraice?

Swine's snout finxit poeta: hyosrhynchus, cf. hyoscyamus.

"[T]here seems to be no Greek equivalent of ... dandelion" — thanks to Joel Eidsath for bringing to my attention ἀπάπη, the Greek word for dandelion.

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