watercress

A word with a refreshing, crisp sound. Of course, anything with water will have a much stronger semantic than phonaesthetic impact, but the cress brings a fresh crunch and crush. Only the c really looks like the object of the word, those little round leaves of a peppery salad green. Peppery? In flavour, anyway. They’re actually Nasturtium officinale (so much nastier a word! but they’re unrelated to the flowers called nasturtiums, which seem only to have in common the ability to provoke being called “nose-twisters” in Latin) and related to mustard. Would these greens be thought light or refreshing if they had mustard or nasturtium in their common name? Or would the edge of their taste be much more emphasized? I think the latter. As it is, they are popular enough, and they – and the word – keep company with two more things with wet s‘s: salad and sandwich – not just any sandwich, but tidy little triangles served with tea, adding to the genteel flavour this word gets from echoes of Waterford, Water Music, and similar cultivated aquatic things. Why not? Watercress itself is cultivated semi-aquatically. If you’re expecting me to say that the water in this word is unrelated to what you drink, I won’t, because it’s the same. This hollow-stemmed cress gets its name from its environment. There are many other cresses, crucifers all (like cabbage and cauliflower), but cress by itself normally refers to this one. Cress, for its part, has meant what it means for a very long time and (variously transformed) in quite a few languages. It may be related to a Germanic root meaning “creep”; it is probably unrelated to Latin crescere “grow,” though they have been popularly associated, since cresses do grow briskly. …And wither quickly too, and so get consumed with reasonable haste. And a cup of Earl Grey.

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