This word seems to me to have layers of ensiform leaves, like its object. It has a neat partial symmetry, with the opening and closing a’s and the mirroring i’s flanking the not-quite-central post of the d. The layered feel may come in good part from the pair of /s/-plus-voiceless-stop clusters, sitting neatly at syllable boundaries – many a linguist will tell you flatly that in both instances the /s/ is fully at the beginning of the latter syllable and not at all part of the former, but others will point out that the phonological effect is as though the /s/ is at the end of the former syllable. Ask someone what the third syllable of this word is and they will probably readily say “dis.” (Ask them to say the first syllable and they’ll probably think you’re being naughty.) We don’t, after all, have “short i” in an open syllable. So even if, in saying it, we tend to glue the [s] onto the [p] or [t], that’s something that happens just at the moment of articulation – and possibly not completely even then.

For quite a few years I added, in my mind, another layer to this word. Somehow aspidistra seemed like it didn’t have quite enough to it, so I thought of the word as aspidispstra (and no, this was not some mere dipsomaniacal fantasy). That made for a rather larger-than-usual version of aspidistra! But not perhaps the biggest in the world. That would be the one in Gracie Fields’s song “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World,” which she came out with in 1938 and which was popular during World War II.

Why an aspidistra? This plant has become emblematic of British middle-class dull respectability – even the Oxford English Dictionary includes this aspect of its social significance right in its definition. George Orwell’s 1936 book Keep the Aspidistra Flying cemented its place as epitome, but by that time it was already past its peak in that role. It happened to have been one of the few plants that could thrive presentably in the dim cold and mildly toxic air of the gas-lit households of the British middle class during the Victorian era and on until electricity took over. (It occurs to me that I could probably get away with using one – perhaps the kind called “cast-iron plant” for its resilience – to replace the scraggly seven-year-old poinsettia that my wife keeps threatening to dismember and put down the garbage chute. I’m sure there’s a local aspidistribution centre somewhere in the aspidistrict I could get one from.)

This word has tastes of other life forms too. It opens with asp, which is a snake; its form is perhaps reminiscent of Latin names for bugs, such as Coleoptera; the stra makes it look like a Dutch family name (cf. Feenstra, Hofstra, Keegstra, Kooistra, et cetestra). But for all the menagerie of its letter salad the plant is not fantastic or exotic or exceptionally colourful; its leaves are like wide swords, but the name gladiolus is being used by something else, and somehow this plant got named after a shield instead – Greek ἀσπίς aspis plus some modern Latin morphology to finish it off. The word entered English about the time Queen Victoria was born.

Of course you could always call it by its Mandarin name yè lán or its Japanese name haran; after all, the plant’s originally from that part of the world. But those seem like such simple words, lacking the aspiration to sophistrication and respectability of the broad British middle class. The aspidistra keeps it flying, full banners in the breeze: the escutcheon of the world’s salary slaves.

One response to “aspidistra

  1. I knew it from the Orwell but I always stuck that extra ‘s’ in there, too.

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