Monthly Archives: May 2012

Milford

For more of New Zealand, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/sesquiotic/sets/72157629856698412/
with/7253053294/

 

This is a word of layers, as you shall see.

It’s an easy pun to say I like the sound of this word, since Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I can recall seeing (and that’s saying a lot, as I like to visit beautiful places). But it also has a nice sound in the saying, the soft nasal shifting into a vowel that glides through a relaxed liquid (your tongue tip likely doesn’t touch when you say the /l/) into the powder-puff of the /f/ (even appearing in letter form to relax, as an f is like an l bent over and leaning on a bar), then on through a syllabic /r/ until at last touching a firm landing point at /d/.

The echoes are various, of course; I will leave aside the milf bit, other than to point out that that term’s referent is old and desirable, like Milford Sound. Milk comes up, though it stops hard at the back. The ford is not said like the independent word ford; rather, it ends the same as Harvard and Clifford. I am put in mind of Medford, just because that’s where Tufts University is (I got my PhD there) and where “Jingle Bells” was written. People from Britain may think of Milford Haven, in Wales (which may remind Canadians of Millhaven, a federal penitentiary, but never mind).

Surely it’s the same Milford, this sound and that haven? Yes, in fact. I should say first, though, that Milford Sound is actually a fjord – a sound is a kind of ocean inlet or passage between land bodies (for instance Øresund, between Sweden and Zealand), but Milford Sound is actually a narrow valley carved by glaciation and then filled in by sea, and fjord is the more technically appropriate term. Contrast this with a ria, which is a river valley which was flooded by rising sea levels (one tour guide told us this was the definition of a sound, but that seems not to be the standard accepted definition).

Now, Milford Fjord would sound a bit odd, wouldn’t it? A strange repetition of sound (through lack of Sound). It sticks with the name as revised in the mid-19th century by Captain John Lort Stokes. The name originally given was Milford Haven. Yes, directly in honour of the place in Wales, home of John Grono, a sealer captain who sailed into it in about 1812 and aimed to further immortalize (and perhaps recapture) his place of birth.

But Milford Sound doesn’t actually look like Milford Haven; the latter is rather flattish. And in fact it’s a ria, not a fjord. Which is kind of funny, because, as you may have guessed, the ford in Milford is related to fjord. In fact, Milford means “sandy fjord”. So while Milford Sound is not altogether accurate, Milford Fjord would be redundant. But there’s really nothing sandy about Milford Sound, so if we’re going to get etymological, we’ll go off the rails anyway.

So you can see there are layers, and then there is this diverted attempt at immortality…

Now, if Grono had named it by the Welsh name of his home, he would have called it Aberdaugleddau, which could have been problematic for what I presume are obvious reasons, but it would have been a little less inaccurate inasmuch as it means “mouth of the Cleddau rivers” and the river that flows into Milford Sound was named the Cleddau by Grono.

But Grono was not the first person to navigate the waters of Milford Sound, nor the first person to give it a name. Hello! The Maori had already been in New Zealand (or Aotearoa, as they called it) for a few centuries. And they called Milford Sound Piopiotahi, which is also an official name for it now.

OK, so… Piopiotahi? Six syllables, with that vowel-heaviness and reduplication characteristic of Polynesian languages. It’s pretty, maybe, but the sound characteristics are crisp and play more to the spectacular sights and heights of the place than to any sense of calmness of fluidity. But what does it mean?

Well, the piopio was a kind of thrush indigenous to Aotearoa. It is now extinct. But in Maori legend, a piopio was the travelling companion of the demi-god Maui, who set out to achieve immortality for humans by entering the womb of the goddess of death and coming out through her mouth. When he died in the attempt, the piopio flew to Milford Sound in mourning. Tahi means “single, one”; piopiotahi means “a single piopio”.

And now there is not a single piopio left either; they too were mortal. But Piopiotahi is immortal, timeless, and though you may cruise through it with a multitude of tourists on your bark of fantasy, in the grandness of the sound you make barely a sound. You are entering a passage closer to where time was born, where all is always changing (waterfalls that come and go within hours; plants that cling to cliffs, sometimes slide off, then grow again), but it is the very liquid nature of the place that, in the face of its high rocks, gives it immortality – it and, for an illusory hour, you.

sloven

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Margaret Gibbs.

My daughter opened the door of my condo, took two steps in, gasped, backed up two steps, and stood beating her head gently against the door. “Why did I ever agree to this? I will never understand how the pair of you can be such slovens!”

My granddaughter and I, temporarily roomies so she could have a shorter commute to her summer job, looked around us in some puzzlement. Granted, it would be hard to put down a piece of paper since there were no clear surfaces on which to put anything, but we knew what was in which pile and where. And only one of the cats had come out to greet Carrie, but we knew the other one was prowling among the stacks of cartons covering the living room floor because we could hear him scrabbling and meowing somewhere. He didn’t sound panicky. Yet.

“Mum, for years and years you were a consultant cataloguer! Bringing order out of chaos was your specialty,” Carrie wailed. “And you!” She rounded on her firstborn. “An engineering student who’s always chanting, ‘Nobody wants to cross a bridge designed by a careless engineer’. So why at home,” she repeated, covering her eyes and shuddering, “are you both such SLOVENS!”

Bethany laughed, then hastily turned it into a cough as her mother fixed her with a gimlet eye. Neither of us wanted to spoil the summer’s living arrangement, which suited us both happily. “Sorry, Mum, but if ever a word sounded like what it meant, ‘sloven’ is it. It’s such a messy word, isn’t it, Grandma? No two letters repeated, and it starts out hissing like a tire going flat and then kind of falls back down your throat somewhere.”

I took my cue and seized the distraction. “Yes, think of all the sloppy words that start with sl— . Slump, slouch, slur, slide and the past tense they were so fond of in ‘Pogo’, ‘he slud in jes’ in time’.”

“What language does it come from?” Beth asked brightly. Carrie, not fooled, glared at her.

“I’ll take a stab and say Dutch, but the Germanic languages are not my specialty. Let’s look it up.” We moved to the computer (Beth, firing up her laptop) and the bookcase (me, after shoving aside several large boxes of indeterminate contents). She got several hits quickly as I thumbed through the first dictionary to hand.

“You were close, Grandma,” she announced. “It says here sloven is from the Middle Flemish sloovin, a scold, related to sloeuf, untidy or shabby, from Proto-Germanic slup plus a suffix.” Beth looked puzzled. “I don’t see the connection between being untidy and being a scold.”

“I do,” said Carrie grimly. “Leave your room looking like the aftermath of a tornado and your mother turns into a scold.”

Beth read further. “It says here that sloven is related to slob, slow, sloth, slush, slurp, sloof – what? oh, that’s Dutch for an apron? huh? – a male slattern? and ‘slut’!! Excuuuuse me?!”

“Do you want to break that news to Tyler?” I muttered to Carrie, who laughed in spite of herself. Tyler is Beth’s boyfriend of long standing. I looked at the screen over her shoulder. “Ah, I see the problem. What made you go to that website first? Such slovenly scholarship.”

“It was the first hit,” she said, a bit defensively.

“Well, try that one.” I pointed to another hit further down the screen. “The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. I’ve got the book version here, but it’s probably an older edition. See if the entry is still the same.”

She peered at the new site rather more suspiciously. “Oh. I see. This one says sloven meant a knave or rascal in the fifteenth century, an idle fellow by the sixteenth century, and later just ‘a careless or negligent person’. And it says it’s perhaps based on Flemish sloef meaning dirty or squalid, or Dutch slof, negligent.”

“Pretty much what it says here,” I said, closing my book. “They haven’t changed their minds.”

“So why was the first site I looked at so different? And it was all over the place, like somebody wrote the entry in a big hurry and didn’t even edit it?”

“Just what I said,” I replied. “Slovenly scholarship. Now you and I, Beth, may be untidy – all right, Carrie, extremely messy – physically, but mentally we’re both logical and organized.”

“And,” added Beth primly, “we are definitely not a pair of sluts!”

Carrie looked around the room again. What she could see of it under the detritus of clutter. “You couldn’t possibly be,” she commented dryly. “There’s no clear space big enough to lie down.”

hurricane, forehead, often, scone

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Tom Priestly.

What an odd salad of words to taste in one sitting! Each shares something savoury with the others (two begin with syllables ending in r, two have syllables starting with h, two contain f, three end with the sound n) but the taste combination does not have anything special to recommend it. This would be the first recipe to be rejected from “Top Word Chef”. Maybe there is another point to this mixture?

There is a point, but it is one that only a puristic old linguist with British roots (an ELP: Elderly Limey Pedant) and long acquainted with North Americans would associate as a single group. What, if any, is the thread that binds these words together? Three nouns, one adverb. Hmm. One with three syllables, two with two and one with one. Hmm again. Give up? I thought so.

The thread is one of pronunciation. Each of these words is pronounced in two ways, and ELP’s will probably have four very different pronunciations from most of the readers of this word-tasting note. As your representative ELP, I admit to a pedantic attachment to these “other” versions.

“In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire,” sang Eliza Doolittle, “hurricanes hardly happen.” But they do happen in warm Atlantic waters, Caribbean ones especially, and it is in this area that the word originated. There is etymological disagreement: did it come from a Spanish attempt to say the Carib word hurakn, the God of Evil; or to say hun raqan, the Mayan word for the God of the Wind? Whichever it was, the first Spanish version seems to have been furacan or huracan. The latter is clearly the origin of European words for this deadly phenomenon, e.g., French ouragan, German orkan. In England in the 16th C they were called furacanos (the Brits thought that all Spanish words should end in –o!) and then herricanos. Within a century the singular was being spelled hurican, hero-cane, Harry-Cain. In England it is still usually pronounced “hurry-c’n” but –cane became the orthographic norm by the 18th C and encouraged the pronunciation “hurry-cane” that is quite normal — even for a hockey team! — west of the Atlantic. In other words, the mis-spelling resulted in a new pronunciation — or, as an ELP will say, a mis-pronunciation. What is interesting is that neither way of pronouncing the word does justice to the meteorological phenomenon it denotes. Both begin with a breath of air which is surely far less than 28 knots (32 mph, 52 kmh), hence not even typical of a tropical storm; and one of them dissipates into a mild “c’n” while the other ends with a word which is either sweet (sugar cane) or hurtful (six strokes of the cane for you, Bunter!) but in no way devastating. Pity!

“There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good; but when she was bad, she was horrid.” Was she “hore-head” (or perhaps even “whore-head”?) By no means. She was horrid, and the curl was on her “forrid.” The poet who penned this gem was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The word forehead was pronounced “forrid”, then, sometime before 1882 (when Henry W. died), and, we must presume, in Maine, whence he hailed. (By the way, he got away with being christened with “ordinary” given names. His mother’s was Zilpah and grandfather’s, Peleg. Would a Peleg Wadsworth Longfellow have attained such fame?) In any case, here we have another word which developed a new pronunciation because of its spelling (also because of its association with the part of the anatomy where it is located, of course). So, although I normally only hear “forrid” from British lips, this pronunciation was not confined to those islands.

My intent is now clear: to illustrate what are known as “spelling pronunciations.” One of the best examples is hemorrhoids: these were originally known as emerauds or emeralds because of their appearance; some pretentious 16th C eejuts decided to change the first syllable to “haemo-“ or “hemo-“ to show the connection to blood (and they changed the last syllable so that it, too, has a Greek look to it) and now we all pronounce it as it was re-spelled. Not even ELP’s will ask their doctors about treatments for emeralds.

And so to often, which English-speakers everywhere hear being pronounced in both variants, “oft’n” and “off’n”. The two are both so common that nobody thinks of me as an ELP when I say “off’n”. If you took the foregoing examples as a guide, you will have caught my simple rule: the most common pronunciation which is closer to the spelling has ousted the one that is not so close. Following this rule, what must once have been “oft’n” first seems to have changed to “off’n” and then, under the influence of the spelling, was by many people pronounced “oft’n” again. The OED tells us that oft was more common than often (which may have added the second syllable to make it more like its antonym, selden / seldom) until the 16th C, when some scholars were already reporting pronunciations without the “t”. The change “oft’n” to “off’n” follows a regular pattern: soften is pronounced without the “t”, hasten, chasten, listen (with another voiceless fricative before “-t’n”) similarly; look at the simple roots, which keep the “t”: soft, haste, chaste, list (as the verb “to hearken”). Also, the “t” is dropped in another similar combination in whistle, castle. So we should be surprised neither at “off’n”, nor at the orthographically-affected “oft’n”. And maybe we should be listening (“liss-tuh-ning”?) for people to start reverting to “soft’n” and “cast’l” because they are spelled that way.

So what about scone? Its two pronunciations are not equally common: most people, even in Britain, rhyme this word with bone, cone, lone, phone, stone, tone; and only a relative few, ELP’s and others, rhyme it with gone. (Luckily, nobody seems to make it rhyme with one, none, done.) Our true friend the OED defines this as “A large round cake made of wheat or barley-meal baked on a griddle; …more generally, a soft cake of barley- or oatmeal, or wheat-flour, baked in single portions on a griddle or in an oven.” Many people use the word biscuit for the same delectation, but we’ll not open up the question of different words for the same culinary item. The origin of scone was a Scots word scon (the eight historically first examples in the OED are all from Scotland), so my proposed “general rule” holds good: “scoan” is definitely a spelling pronunciation. As it happens, the first recorded new spelling with a final “-e” is from 1744. Our cousins Down Under use scone as a slang word for “head”, and the phrase he’s doing his scone for he’s losing his temper (like the British slang equivalent, he’s doing his nut, with nut also meaning “head”) – but the OED does not tell us whether angry Aussies and choleric Kiwis do their “scoans” or their “scons”.

At least two further questions come up. First, why are some words affected and not others? Why do so many people say “oft’n” while nobody says “”soft’n”? Why do we hear “scoan” for scone but not “goan” for gone? Is it just a question of frequency, or is there more to it than this? — And second, will any more spelling pronunciations ever be heard? Will somepeople begin to rhyme plaque with opaque? Will the “h” be restored to the pronunciations of heir, hour, honour, honest since it is pronounced in initial position in hundreds of other words?

When I ask for something to eat with my coffee, local baristas are (after decades!) slowly getting used to my saying “scoan”. I suspect their hidden amusement at my ELP-ish habit of asking for “one biscotto”, but that is another story.

hockey

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Laurie Miller.

The Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup in this century, the NHL season shouldn’t be dragging on into June, and this word tastes wrong for the game.

Hockey. The game is a fast, swooping, rushing thing; but none of that shows up in the word hockey. Oh, there is a bit of cleverness in the way the terminal letters mirror each other, an ascender and a descender at either end with the rest of the word in between, but that doesn’t begin to suggest the rapid-fire reflex thinking that the game requires. And the annular o does look in most fonts like a puck on its side — but the weight of its sound is more likely to slow you down than to speed you up in experiencing the word, and a puck on its side is the one most likely to confound both shooters and goalie; all players approach one with extra consideration. The effort required to say the word does feel a bit like the tensing of one’s body to give or to take a hit — but, on the whole, the word doesn’t feel like the game.

Swish. Now, that word’s flavour would be more appropriate, hinting at things rushing through air, or skates gliding on ice; but that word is strongly identified with basketball.

Click would have some merit as a name for the game. Its abruptness suggests the speeds involved, and the nearly non-verbal deftness of its complexity in the mouth does feel a bit like that preternatural sensation of finding that your goalie trapper, say, has already begun moving on a trajectory that may intersect with that of a slap shot that you have only just begun consciously to recognize — but click is not the name that we have inherited.

No, hockey is what it is, all tied up with the rustic connotations of its antecedents. Stolid English farmers have put their “hocks” or “hockey-sticks” to various good uses for centuries. The solid romanesque arches of hockey’s curved letters are not nearly so appropriate here as they are in, say, rugby’s “scrum,” but, admittedly, power is part of hockey, too, and “hockey” must suffice.

wrench

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Duane Aubin.

Recently I talked about language as a powerful marketing tool. Yesterday I was reminded of the idea.

My Treo 680’s microphone stopped working a few weeks ago, for some unknown reason. I went to Craigslist to find a replacement for it, and there were no 680s to be had. My boss pulled an old BlackBerry out of a desk drawer, I snapped in my SIM card and, after our IT guy worked his magic, I was up and running on a BlackBerry.

The transition has been interesting. Initially, I might have wanted to appreciate how the keys on this Bold 9700 are angled so that the left side can be more easily pushed with the left thumb while the right side can be more easily pushed by the right thumb. However, it’s actually annoying because, to type more quickly with only two fingers, sometimes I need to push a key on the opposite side with the opposite thumb (such as when I click shift to get a capital, it’s faster to click shift with the left thumb and the letter T with the right thumb right afterwards, as opposed to using the left thumb in sequence), and these keys make that harder. Palm’s physical keyboard still trumps anything else out there. Progress? Bah! Humbug. It’s not hard to understand the Palm die-hard.

Anyway, while getting help to do something from colleague, he directed me to “go to the wrench.” In other GUI metaphors, one may be told to “Go to Options” or “Settings” or “Preferences;” in the BlackBerry world, stuff gets tweaked and adjusted using “the wrench”.

It was in the manner he said it that reminded me of the recent conversation about language in marketing. He said it as though I should know what in the world he’s talking about. He didn’t say “you’re new to BlackBerry aren’t you? Okay, to adjust settings/options/preferences, look for the wrench.” He just said it, matter-of-factly, and he expected me to keep up. Having already spent a goodly amount of time trackpadding around in the BlackBerry menu to orient myself to this strange new world, I was able to stick with the tour in real-time, for I am now a BlackBerry user (for the time being, that is), and am “speaking BlackBerry”.

Truth be told, when I highlight the wrench with the trackpad, the label that comes up is “Options” but, evidently, while formal BlackBerrese may recognize Options, the commoners on the corner colloquially refer to “the wrench.”

And, then I digressed. Why not just go with the more common terms – “settings,” “options” or “preferences”? In fact, why are there three terms at all (granted, “preferences” is a different idea than the more synonymous “settings/options”).

And, we’re back to language. Funny thing is, I find the “wrench” to imply the worst idea among them.

“Settings” comes across as cut and dried, dichotomous with no nuance. “Set it” left or right, on or off, up or down. I imagine a control panel of switches.

“Options” is the ego-stroking “user empowerment” term, proverb “hey user, this can work any way you want, you have options, and you can make choices.” Of course, this can be frustrating when the façade of empowerment crumbles in the reality of narrow limitations on what can be done.

“Preferences” goes a misleading step further to suggest that something may work more than one way, depending on what the user prefers. This may be true of themes, or what the left or right side buttons do; but may be less true when setting a VPN. And, there are some things that simply do not work to my preferences at all.

Which brings us to “wrench,” immediately conjuring the sound of a ratchet and the image of a mechanic cranking, cranking, cranking, but not using a torque wrench that tells the mechanic precisely when to stop cranking. It’s the sound of the cranking done by a mechanic who just cranks until “mmm, that feels tight off, that’s about right.”

Wrench, in its verb form, connotes a struggle, the exertion of effort against resistance, an imposing of will over that of another. It also carries a sense of violence, of forcefully moving something that otherwise had no interest or complicity or cooperation. And, remarkably, that’s how I’d describe using this BlackBerry.

On their own, PDAs don’t tell time very well. The clock on my Treo, now devoid of a SIM card, is well off. However, when it was set (no shade of interpretation, it was definitively distinctly turned on) to use network time, it stayed on time, all the time (which was necessary to support all the calendar and to-do reminders).

This BlackBerry has what it calls “device time” and “network time,” and ne’er the twain will meet. Even though I’ve opted for the device to “always” use network time, the device time is always some ten minutes off, and it’s gut-wrenching.

Ten minutes? For a device geared for business users? Arrive ten minutes late to a meeting. Or ten minutes late at the airport to catch a flight. Or ten minutes late for a pitch at a client’s office. Or ten minutes late for an interview. Or ten minutes late for… you get the idea. In the business world, that’s an enormous, unacceptable time discrepancy.

So, I keep going back to the wrench to make sure the option I exercised “took;” that the setting I set didn’t get unset… I keep wrenching and cranking and struggling,  hoping that, the longer I exert effort, the closer I might get to what I really want. After all, it is my PDA, my personal digital assistant — it’s supposed to assist me by doing what I say, the way I personally prefer it to be done.

Thus does language also emerge as too precise a burden on the vagaries of reality, a lofty standard far above what may be reasonably expected in the real world. This thing is not being very helpful to me.

Or, maybe that’s part of why BlackBerry’s stock has tanked. Others have found the struggle too much to bear?

One fine day, I will move on to a smarter smartphone.

And, as for this stop-gap BlackBerry? I’ll take a wrench to it.

Joan of Arc

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by AdoAnnie.

Word tasting, I have so enjoyed the words I’ve sipped, slurped, gnawed and crunched here on Sesquiotica. My only and very tiny critique is that they have been doled out mostly one at a time. I love the buffet of words, the well placed adverb and verb, verb and noun, adjective and noun that flow from the page to the brain, from writing to image like a beautifully prepared dish in which the spices and herbs bloom on the tongue. Gourmand, I know, I know, especially with a run-on sentence. But I adore a well written sentence.

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

“The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words . . .”

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Oh, the spell-check choked on that one. But I can see them gimbling and gyring in the wabe. The taste is alluring and sensual, beckoning to be sampled again and again.

So what does this have to do with Joan of Arc? It was the news reporter this morning, a woman who usually lays out a tasty, well seasoned array of words to sample and chew on. She was reporting on Marine Le Pen, who represents the National Front, a political group that lost out in the French presidential primaries but has a large enough voting block to swing the election to either of the top runners. The reporter said that Ms Le Pen was “. . . standing in front of the statue of Joan of Arc in full armor and holding a sword to make her statement . . .” The plate of buffet words dropped from my hand and went crashing to the floor. Everything stopped and I had to listen to the mental playback over and over. I don’t know what Ms Le Pen had to say, only that she was in full armor when she said it and holding a sword.

I was left with a sharp tinny aftertaste like hard tap water and the urge to reach inside the radio and shake the reporter. It reminds me of a story in our local paper. There had been a murder and the reporter wrote that the neighbors had known the man who had been shot for years. Possibly they used him for target practice? It’s too bad that he wasn’t as well armored as Ms Le Pen or Joan of Arc.

truffle

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Edward Banatt.

I’d like to thank James Harbeck for the opportunity to submit a guest post. I stumbled upon Sesquiotica via Twitter and I often enjoy the etymological explorations and wordplay on this blog.

Truffle.

Set aside what the word itself means for a moment, and let’s embark on a little logogustation. Truffle kicks off with tr, which opens the mouth slightly, as if to receive a forkful of pasta with truffle shavings. Roll the r if you want to add an air of decadence to your pronunciation – cheap trills perhaps? Short u follows, as in yummy, scrumptious, luxurious, then your glottis relaxes for the voiceless labiodental fricative double f, with the top teeth touching the bottom lip. Imagine the tines of the fork sliding past the lips as you say it. Finish with an l, the tongue touching the front of the palate softly, and pause for a delectable moment to savor the silent e. Truffle.

The letters of the word stay below the middle line, mostly. The t stands there solemnly, perhaps a truffle spade in miniature. The r almost resembles a sapling with a single branch. U dips down, as if scooped out by the snout of a truffle pig. Swelling out of the word like a fruiting body are the letters ffl, and e sits lazily at the word’s end, wearing what I like to call a truffle-eating grin..

What is a truffle exactly? Truffles are the belowground fruiting bodies of an ectomycorrhizal fungus, the mycelia of which form a symbiotic relationship with several types of trees. Ectomycorrhizal is a tasty word (it inspired this post), and it describes the Twilight-esque nature of the symbiosis – the threadlike hyphae of the mycelium never penetrate the roots of the tree. The hyphae act as a sort of fertilizing agent, providing phosphates for the plant, and the hyphae of the fungus benefit from sugars derived from the tree roots.

Fungi have always fascinated me – they’re plant-like, yet taxonomically speaking, are more closely related to animals. It amazes me that we humans have learned to eat potentially toxic fruiting bodies of fungi by trial and error. (Pause here for the ancient foragers who laid down their lives that we might enjoy eating fungi). If you survived the poison, you may have had a mind-bending experience. Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland after he had experimented with Amanita muscaria and those perceptual changes Alice experiences after eating mushrooms were influenced by Carroll’s own hallucinogenic mushroom intoxication.

Edible fungi provide more flavor than nutrition. Truffles contain three different types of umami substances in the form of glutamate, insinuate, and guanylate, all of which create taste cravings. They have an earthy, pungent flavor (especially the white variety), and are not sweet like the candies that bear a passing resemblance to their namesake.

Want to taste the diamond of the kitchen by adding a little truffle oil to your dish? Truffle oil isn’t anyone’s best friend, my friend. Most truffle oil is more like snake oil, by which I mean it’s a fraud, a sham, a culinary humbug.  It contains no truffles! “Most commercial truffle oils are concocted by mixing olive oil with one or more compounds like 2,4-dithiapentane.”  I’ll pass.

The etymological root of truffle is the Latin tuber meaning “swelling” or “lump”. Humble beginnings, you might say. Truffle farmers often employ hounds or hogs that have an exceptional sense of smell to find and dig up these lumpy treasures. Pigs dig the taste of the truffle like we do, so the farmer must stay vigilant, stopping and denying the poor porcine the object of her tantalized snuffling before she devours it. So, the next time you are enjoying a swell dish of tajarini al tartufo, offer a toast to the terrific talents of the humble pig that may have unearthed the earthy diamond that flavors your dish.

Cin Cin!