We were starting another word tasting Zoom meeting, for want of anything at all better to do, when several of those of us already in the multiocular got a text at the same time. You could hear the various alert sounds and we all looked away and picked up our devices. It was a text to the group from Maury: “Sorry, can’t make, got stomachache”
“Stomachache!” Elisa said. “Now, there’s a word to taste!”
“I have a feeling that Maury’s already done some tasting,” I said, “and that’s what’s resulted in his stomachache.”
“Just look at it,” Elisa continued. “It looks like it could be a dance – like a stoma-cha-cha.”
“Or a line of fashion,” Arlene said. “Like Jordache.”
Jess, who was in the same frame as Arlene, glanced at her, then looked back the rest of us. “Funny. I think of it as like an angry Scotsman, with the ‘ach! ach!’”
“Maybe he’s trying to put on jeans,” Arlene said. “But they’re too tight.”
“Because he’s been in lockdown for a whole-ass year,” Jess said.
“It’s the kind of word that gives English learners a headache,” Elisa said, circling back to the topic. “Like, it sounds almost like muckrake but sure doesn’t look like it.”
Daryl, who had been abiding quietly in his small corner, chimed in. “What the heck is the reason for those ch’s anyway? …James? You usually know.”
I looked up from my phone, on which I had been texting Maury separately to learn more of his predicament, since it was probably entertaining. “Greek to me,” I said.
“Do you mean that literally?” Jess asked.
“Kinda. It certainly smells of orthographic retconning.”
“I’m sure that means something,” Elisa said.
“Like, the words may have been spelled differently and then got respelled to display some etymology, real or imagined.” My phone vibed. It was a text from Maury: “Narcissa mistook Parthenocissus for Sambucus”
There is not another person in the world who would send a text like that and expect the recipient to understand it. And I wasn’t sure I entirely did either. I knew Narcissa was a friend of his with whom he was occasionally exchanging foodstuffs, presumably from a safe distance. The topic was clarified a little more with his next text, which was a picture of a small jam jar hand-labelled “Elderberry.”
Elderberry… genus Sambucus, right. And Parthenocissus is… oh. Virginia creeper. Um. Ooops.
The Zoom conversation, meanwhile, had continued. Daryl was looking at his iPad and talking. “OK, stomach comes from… well, French estomac, no surprise, and that’s from Latin stomachus with an h, which is from Greek στόμαχος. And in English it was spelled with just a c or a k or a ck until the 1500s, when they added the h to display its, uh, what’s James’s usual turn of phrase?”
“Glorious classical roots?” I said.
“Well,” said Arlene, “that was fruitful.”
“Like elderberries,” I said. Everyone seemed to ignore me.
“Now, ache,” Daryl said, tapping on his device. “Let’s see… oh, that’s fun.”
“Well, dude?” Jess said. “Don’t leave us hanging.”
Daryl looked up. “So… ache is from a Germanic root. The verb form was for a long time spelled with a k, and always said with a ‘k’ sound, but the noun form was spelled with a c and then sometimes a ch because for a long time it was pronounced with a ‘ch’ sound. Like the verb break and the noun breach. Oh, and the verb used to be strong, like I ake, I oke, I have aken.”
“So wait,” Elisa said. “The noun was said like the same as the letter H?”
“Yeah,” Daryl said. “There’s even a pun on that in Much Ado about Nothing.”
“So when did the pronunciation change?” Arlene said.
“Apparently,” Daryl said, with some scrolling and jabbing, “when the spelling of the verb switched to the ch. So the pronunciation went with the verb and the spelling with the noun, which… Oh, that’s hilarious.”
“Wait,” I said, “don’t tell me. Someone got etymological ideas.”
“Yeah,” Daryl said. “Someone… thought that they both came from Greek ἄχος. And guess who that was?”
Arlene rolled her eyes. “Your dad?”
“Doctor Johnson,” Daryl said, with a smile.
“I think I have some of his albums,” Jess said.
Arlene parried with “I thought he made videos.”
“Doctor Johnson’s Dick-tionary,” Jess said.
Elisa rescued the topic once more: “It’s a shame that Maury isn’t here to join in this.”
“Well,” I said, “his predicament turns out to parallel this word’s. It’s the difference between elderberries and Virginia creeper.”
“Your mother smells of elderberries,” said Jess, who was getting so silly she had slipped into Monty Python references.
“If you want to eat elderberries, you have to cook them, or you get a stomachache,” I said. “But Virginia creeper has berries that an inattentive person might mistake for elderberries—”
“Inattentive!” Elisa said. “Intoxicated, maybe!” Over in their little window, Arlene elbowed Jess.
“—and even if you cook them,” I continued, “you will still regret eating them.”
“Goodness gracious, yes,” Elisa said. I had forgotten that botany was a thing she knew about.
“So what you’re saying, in your weird allusive circuitous way,” Jess said, “is that stomach is like elderberries, because it’s actually Greek if you boil it down or juice it up, and ache is like Virginia creeper, because even if you try to treat it like Greek, it’s just not.”
I paused to see if I could think of anything witty to say. I could not. “…Yeah.”
“Stomachache kinda makes me think of cake when I hear it,” Daryl mused from his corner.
“Like having your cake and eating it too,” I said. “Like this word.”
“Really, don’t hurt yourself reaching for it,” Jess said.
“Well, it’s too bad Maury didn’t have cake,” Elisa said. “But at least we got to taste this word!”
“And he got to taste what it refers to,” Arlene concluded.
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