idioblast

Oh, dear, I’m so short on sleep and I still haven’t done a word tasting… I was going to do one earlier this evening, before going to the show, but I sidetracked myself writing a blast at some idiot. (Well, not just any idiot – a local politician who has managed to climb the ladder in spite of being insistently out of touch with his surroundings and out of tune with his colleagues and, for that matter, reality.) I suppose it’s a better idea than just blasting him with a firearm…

Also, I had been hoping for some inspiration. We went to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a very enjoyable musical. Now, there’s a piece about a few people who find themselves in distinctly different surroundings which they are strikingly different from! But in their case, it’s not because they’re idiots. It’s because they’re fabulous. But anyway, no inspiration struck me.

Perhaps I should have taken something from NASA’s big announcement today: In the depths of California’s toxic Mono Lake, a new kind of bacteria has been found that is in fact a new kind of life form (as my friend Kristen Chew put it, quoting Bones McCoy, “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”) – it has arsenic in its DNA rather than phosphorus. It’s fundamentally different at the very root of its biological being. And yet there it is, in the middle of our world, where every life form we’ve ever known before this had the same DNA building blocks. But while it stands out, I didn’t get any outstanding inspiration for a word tasting.

In the end I just went to the Oxford English Dictionary website to look for inspiration. And in their list of recently updated words, one stuck out: idioblast. (Actually, idioblastic, but I’m going with the noun root.) And what does idioblast mean? Here is the OED’s quote from an 1882 biology text by S.H. Vines: “It is not unusual for individual cells in a tissue otherwise homogeneous to become developed in a manner strikingly different from their neighbours; to such cells I have applied the term Idioblast.” In geology, the word has a similar use: “A mineral crystal within a metamorphic rock which has developed its own characteristic crystal faces” (that’s the OED‘s own definition).

But what has this to do with blasts, let alone idiots? Well, the blast is actually from Greek βλαστος blastos, “sprout”; it is used in various words referring to initially developing forms. It is not related to our Germanic-rooted noun blast referring to gusts of air or similar. Idiot, on the other hand, is related to the idio; the Greek root refers to things that are personal, private, distinct, etc. (for instance, any given person’s own specific speech patterns, word choices, etc. form his or her idiolect). We get our modern idiot by way of a Greek word for a private person, i.e., someone of no public significance, education, understanding, knowledge, etc. Which is a bit paradoxical, of course, when a person of strikingly little knowledge or understanding comes to occupy a very public position. But given that such a person is a bit like a frayed cotton patch on a silk dress, we can see the connection.

Not that idiot is the only echo of the beginning of this word. I think the word actually sounds a bit like giddyup last, minus the /g/. And its letters make such interesting patterns – the i and i like two torches flanking the d; the b like the d turning to look the other way; the first five letters having three circles and the last four having none; and what else may you find? Does it all hang together? And what about anagrams? Is it a bold word? Can you find labs I do it in? Perhaps most importantly, is there a solid bit in the middle somewhere?

Ah, indeed, this word has coherence. It is, one may say, integrous. And, really, it’s a blast to taste.

2 responses to “idioblast

  1. Ah, new, more accurate information on the arsenic microbe: It’s not spontaneously occurring in nature; it actually developed in a controlled environment meant to conduce to the development. So it’s a proof of concept. Still, as Caleb Scharf, a Columbia microbiologist, put it, “It’s like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat.” (See Microbe Finds Arsenic Tasty; Redefines Life.)

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