Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Word's The Thing.

I love etymological poems (I should have studied linguistics rather than 16th-c. literature). I love the idea that poetry--the genre responsible for radicalizing and advancing language through metaphor and syntax and linguistic deviance--can study itself, can study where language has been. And why.

There is no bigger shiver for me--no greater sense of duende--than to read the etymological origin of a word I had no clue about before, especially when there's a connection rooted there to something I wouldn't have otherwise guessed. It's a way to carry language forward by carrying it back. We've "forgotten" the connection, the root; it's buried in and by cultural history. But, in the process of digging it up, we can actually make language move forward again, in new and surprising ways. Total turn on.

Yes, I am a word geek.

So. Anyway. Today's poem in the Poem-a-Day feature for celebrating National Poetry Month was this one, by Debra Nystrom, entitled "Floater," which has the following wonderfully etymological lines about the speaker's daughter playing her Bach mordents on the piano:

What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don't know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake
, she said.
And so I looked up "mordent" (also, "mordant") in the online dictionary. It also includes a nifty little tool called a visual thesaurus, which informs me that "black" and "grim" are close relatives of "mordant"--who knew? But a noun, an adjective, that has as its root meaning, to take a bite out of something? Brilliant.

Have I mentioned I'm writing a series of poems called "Eve in L.A."?

Duende, baby. Pure duende.

UPDATED: So, I just needed to confirm the plural of avocado (is it avocados or avocadoes?) and, looking it up, came across this:

Word History: The history of avocado takes us back to the Aztecs and their language, Nahuatl, which contained the word ahuacatl meaning both "fruit of the avocado tree" and "testicle." The word ahuacatl was compounded with others, as in ahuacamolli, meaning "avocado soup or sauce," from which the Spanish-Mexican word guacamole derives. In trying to pronounce ahuacatl, the Spanish who found the fruit and its Nahuatl name in Mexico came up with aguacate, but other Spanish speakers substituted the form avocado for the Nahuatl word because ahuacatl sounded like the early Spanish word avocado (now abogado), meaning "lawyer." In borrowing the Spanish avocado, first recorded in English in 1697 in the compound avogato pear (with a spelling that probably reflects Spanish pronunciation), we have lost some traces of the more interesting Nahuatl word.
Anyone know that the fruit shares its etymological root with testicle? I knew this about the word orchid (from Greek orkhis, testicle, orchid [from the shape of its tubers]), but not avocado. Hmmmmm.

Kind of glad to learn that the plural is *not* avocadoes, which would have me thinking of antlerless deer.


  1. What a lovely post. I did not know anything about either mordent or avocado. Now I do.

  2. Linda, I can't believe this is the first time I have visited your fantastic blog!!!

    I'm also a big word geek -- so you are definitely speaking my language.

    I'm about to dive into your archives, now...