cucullate

Look at that c u c u – like little hoods and cowls, maybe for playing peek-a-boo: “Cuckoo! I see you! I C U!” Which makes it a fitting collation of letters, because cucullate means ‘hooded’ or ‘shaped like a hood’, from Latin cucullus ‘hood’ (also related to cowl). It’s said like “Q ka late” or “Q cull it.”

When it’s said at all, that is. It may be colourful, perhaps even lexically lucullan, but it does not have a lot of collocations, especially in lay use. Kids in hoodies are not called “cucullate youth” by even the most self-regarding prose stylists (although if someone wants to comb the works of Conrad Black to contradict me, go for it). It is, rather, biologists who put it to use: botanists, for instance to describe the flower of the aconite, or entomologists, for example to describe the prothorax of the Ptinus.

But I think this word is too luscious to keep in obscurity, even if its pronunication is a bit vexatious. I would not cull it, and I do not think it is too late to cue its entrance – though we may prefer to allocate it to select locutions and to audiences that will look it up rather than assume, by its shape, that it is like ululate but with cucu instead of ulu. With a few looks and a little luck we could inculcate it and see writers putting on the dog with a cute cucullate Chihuahua or kidding around with a cucullate snowsuited infant or, who knows, calling on South Park’s cucullate Kenny.

edaphic

What can you get out of this mix of stems and loops, descender and ascenders and straight lines and curls and a dot? It seems like letters left from other words, decomposed into an assortment from which something new might spring. A peach, a pie, a chip, an epic head ache, a heap?

If it looks like alphabetic floor sweepings, that’s fitting; it comes from Ancient Greek ἔδαφος, ‘floor’. But edaphic doesn’t relate to the floor of your house; it relates to the floor of the forest, of the grasslands, of the world. The soil. Biologists often contrast edaphic with climatic – plants are conditioned by both climate and soil.

But soil is not just some unitary thing, a jumble of dirt. It’s made of particles of the earth’s crust, yes, the rocks that make up the landforms, ground into grounds of ground of various sizes: sand, silt, clay. But it’s also made up of the remains of plants, animals, and insects, and of all the things they deposit as they go about their living. Their organs may now be disorganized but they are still organic, and it matters. And in with that are living bacteria and worms and other things that move and stir in and stir up the earth. All of that is necessary, plus the water that flows through, plus the climate that meets it.

The edaphic mass is evidence of entropy. Things fall apart, get broken down, mix up into bits. But then life happens. Things come together, organize, make coherent forms, grow again out of the spare material. The earth may be edacious – it devours all in time – but it is also aphrodisiac: how can things not come together in the right edaphic conditions and make something new? So remember, when after a spring rain you smell the petrichor: we may return to dust, but dust returns to us. Forget not the edaphic.

kohlrabi

This is a strange-looking word for a strange-looking plant.

Many people get boxes of produce delivered regularly. Many others go wandering through farmers’ markets or surfing the interesting-vegetables corner in their local grocery store. And many times they see this plant, this word, or both, and say “What the heck is that?”

The plant they behold is a sort of creepy sphere with up-dripping appendages, like an organic earth sputnik or an amputee vegan squid or a modernist house design fad from 1952, or some ineffable eldritch animate orb bemusing space travellers on the cover of a mid-century sci-fi novel.

The word they behold is more ungainly than rutabaga. It is an oversized Scrabble-grab of letters that defeat permutation into a single word fitting the usual Anglo-Saxon practices. It could almost name a famous diamond or a southern African desert or an Asian range of mountains.

Or a cabbage-turnip.

Kohl, German, ‘cabbage’. Rabi, related to German Rübe and both ultimately from Latin rapa, ‘turnip’. The plant’s Italian name is cavolo rapa, also ‘cabbage turnip’. The Germans just took that and did that thing that German does with words. Why have a farfalla flutter above your cavolo rapa when you can have a Schmetterling besetting your Kohlrabi?

But even if you don’t find the word appealing, and don’t find the look of the plant appealing, if you buy it, you will be a-peeling, because it’s best to take the skin off. What’s inside is crispy and juicy and similar in taste to the heart of a broccoli stem. Fair enough: they’re related. Kohlrabi was selectively bred from the same wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) progenitor of cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and other crucifers. Technically they’re all varieties of the same plant in the same way as victuals and vittles are varieties of the same word, or thresh and thrash, or vermin and varmint. Or Kohlrabi and cavoli rapa. It’s not a turnip, it’s a cabbage, but it’s a turnip-looking cabbage.

Well, fine, whatever. Here’s a fact for you: some of the ugliest food is some of the best. Same with words.

poltroon

To me, this is, always has been, and always will be a Captain Haddock insult.

You know Captain Haddock, from the Tintin books? He is given to very colourfully cussing out the various reprobates and recreants he and Tintin have to face in the adventures. Well, not cussing out. They’re kids’ books, after all! His shouted epithets for the fleeing villains include such wonders as bashi-bazouks, coelecanths, troglodytes, visigoths – look, there’s a whole list of 213 of them at www.tintinologist.org – and poltroons, which, if my memory is true, serves to set off a Himalayan avalanche.

Not all of these words are, in our real world, names for bad things or bad people. But a poltroon? A poltroon is just about the worst kind of person you’re likely to encounter. “A spiritless coward” and “a mean-spirited wretch,” Merriam-Webster Unabridged says; “an utter coward; a mean-spirited person; a worthless wretch,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells us. A poltroon is a soldier who shoots at his countrymen if they try to make him fight the enemy. A poltroon is a middle manager who won’t lift a finger to help his employees or advocate for them to upper management but will eagerly trap them in his office and belittle them at length. Captain Queeg, Herman Wouk tells us in The Caine Mutiny, is a poltroon.

But somehow, this term is not much used for full effect these days. As the OED says, it’s now chiefly archaic or humorous. For me, the Haddock effect is insuperable, but that can’t be the case for everyone. I think the echoes of goon, buffoon, baboon, loon, and such words probably have some effect. Echoes of dragoon, pantaloon, and saloon might add to the archaic feeling. And we have much more vulgar – and vividly metaphorical – terms to replace it, anyway.

What, originally, is a poltroon? It brings poultry to my mind, but that’s not quite what it is. A 17th-century author suggested that the word came from pollice truncus ‘maimed thumb’, referring to men who mutilated their thumbs to avoid military service. This was long accepted as the source, but it probably isn’t. Poltroon comes from Middle French poltron ‘coward’, from Italian poltrone ‘worthless person, coward’, tracing back to Latin pullus ‘young animal’ – which does connect closely to pullet and poultry, but they’re not the direct source of this word. But a poltroon is a chicken, so to speak – a chicken crossed with a jackal. Also an anthropophagus, an ostrogoth, a picanthropic pickpocket, and so much more…

vellum

Today brought the news that the opening of the British parliament is being set back by the time required for the ink to dry on the official copy of the Queen’s speech. And with that comes the disappointment of Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper that lookups for vellum have not spiked.

Not that the Queen’s speech is calligraphed on vellum. No, it’s done on an archival paper called goatskin, although it’s not made of goat skin. Well, fine. Onionskin isn’t made of onions either, and, for that matter, vellum is these days not often made of calf skin.

Why should it be? Ah, well. The name is not quite as pellucid as vellum is. It has a flavour of historical importance and gravitas, and of fillum – sorry, I mean film – but is nearly as factitious as Velma, Selma, and Thelma (all three names literary inventions, as far as can be seen). Its historical origin has been masked in the process of making it seem more historic.

Vellum was originally made of calf skin, yes: a parchment made of membrane cured and scraped and further prepared for receiving ink and sealing with a signet or binding in a volume. Latin for ‘calf’ is vitulus, and ‘of calf’ or ‘from calf’ is vitulinum (in the neuter). From vitulus came, scraped and polished by time, Old French veel (whence modern French veau and modern English veal), and from vitulinum came velin (whence modern French vélin), which – by some velleity of dissimulation – shifted the final n back to m in English to make it sound more Latin (compare venom from venin and pilgrim from pelegrinus). So now that parchment-type material called vellum is often not made from animal skin at all, the name has gained a fake classical look that masks its real classical origin. It has been treated to make it not what it simply is but what better serves our desires and displays our impressions. Let that soak in.

Milan

Our northern Italian transect culminated in Milan, city of millionaire milliners, the Toronto of Italy. Neither the prettiest nor the ugliest of cities, but an oversized cutlet of urbanism and urbanity plated on a broad plain, breaded with money and spiced with art, education, society, alcohol, and fashion.

Milan has been there since forever, in the middle of that plain. A common derivation of its Latin name, Mediolanum, means ‘middle of the plain’. It’s tempting to say it’s a plain city, but while it may be relatively plain for Italy, it’s still far more presentable than, say, Indianapolis or Winnipeg. And it has long been a magnet for power and money. The Castello Sforzesco is there to help you remember that fact.

From there you can walk along Via Dante and Via dei Mercanti, past all the stores, to the heart of the thing: the Piazza del Duomo.

You can see that the statue horse under the statue dude on the right is frightened by the festival of fancy spikes it sees before it. And also maybe by the crowds: the line just to get a ticket to be let into the line to get into the duomo (cathedral) was a solid block long, almost Godardesque in extent.

Or maybe the horse is spooked by that golden angel madonna on the top of the highest spike. I’m not sure how the palm trees, a gift from Starbucks for letting them open a store there (which is like opening a Taco Bell in Puebla or, um, a Starbucks in Italy, for heaven’s sake), are affecting the beast or the assorted tourists seated beneath its upturned tail. (The second photo is from two hours later. The sky cleared.)

We were with a group and had tickets in advance, so we had much less wait time to get in. The cathedral is, as expected, exalting, and, as is also to be expected, took exactly forever (6 centuries at least) to build – providing you can consider it finished, which I’m not sure it truly is. It is the largest church in Italy. (The pope’s place, St. Peter’s, is in the Vatican City, which is its own separate state. You knew that, right?)

People come to look up to the stone-and-glass heavens.

There’s even a sort of gaudy mechanical nimbus the bishop takes up to ceiling level once a year.

There’s a statue of St. Bartholomew, who is holding his own skin. I’m guessing he’s on the way to have it altered or to swap it in for the new season’s latest.

There’s a replica of the angel madonna (the one that’s spooking the horse). It’s covered in gold and guards an area that only a select few can get into. I suspect it’s the mascot of Fashion Week.

Speaking of gold and getting skinned alive, off the north side of the Piazza del Duomo is the Galleria, its entrance guarded by the Scylla and Charybdis of Campari and Prada, the original locations of both, so you can get something intensely bittersweet and then go and have a cocktail after.

A view through it towards the south reveals the splendor not of the duomo – that’s at the east end of the piazza, with a western narthex as is normal – but the headquarters of Martini and Rossi.

Keep an eye out for the fashion police, though.

Milan has always been a city of fashion. The term milliner for a hat-maker (formerly used more broadly of purveyors of women’s fashion) comes from Milaner, i.e., someone from Milan – which used to be said like “millin’” by the British.

And there is millin’ around, especially in the piazza, but Milan is really a city that is going places. At night it goes, perhaps, to the opera (I did not visit La Scala, so no photo of that); at day it gets around, by underground train or above-ground streetcar

(most of which more modern than this classic one) or bike or simple perambulation. Or by car, though I can’t consider that the best idea. It goes shopping

or for lunch, perhaps to have one of the city’s eponymous expansive breaded veal cutlets,

but it goes, above all, to see and be seen.

In some cities, the sightseeing is all about the things that don’t move. In Milan, it is, above all, about what does move. And eyes are everywhere.

Bergamo

Bergamo is a city of highs and lows, of broad views and surprise turns, of windows on history, of glimpsed secrets.

Yes, yes, just like lots of Italy. When you have that much history, what do you expect? But Bergamo has perhaps a bit more and other.

Let’s get something out of the way to start: It’s pronounced like “bare ga mo,” with the stress on the first syllable, and it’s not related to bergamot, the citrus flavouring in Earl Grey tea (which is best said with the t on the end nice and crisp). Fair enough. Bergamo is not a tea-drinking kind of city.

You can see Bergamo from a distance across the lowlands to the south. You can see one part of it, that is. Bergamo is a city of two parts: the città alta, upper city, a dense medieval Italian town set on a thumb of mountain projecting into the plain and surrounded with 16th-century walls built by Venetians (who owned the place at the time), and the città bassa, lower city, which looks like any other modern northern Italian city, with buildings of a broad range of ages, all built for living and working in but not as much for showing off. Many people think the lower city only appeared in modern times, but it’s been there as long as the upper city has – the difference is just that the lower city has been erased and redone over time like a whiteboard, while the upper city is like that “please leave on” corner of the board.

And the lower city is the lower-class place, historically. The commedia dell’arte, a form of masked improvisatory comedy, drew three of its zany characters from Bergamo (zany? the term for them was zanni, which is the source of the English word): Arlecchino, who became Harlequin, he of the patchwork costume, emblem of romance novels and dime-store paintings; Brighella, who was the smarter and nastier big brother of Arlecchino; and Pedrolino, who may have been a forerunner of Pierrot. All three were lower-class sorts from the lower city who spoke in a broad Bergamasque accent.

Bergamasque? Yes. The term in Italian for a citizen of Bergamo is bergamasco. This shows up in English as bergamasque or, sometimes, bergamask. The latter also names a kind of rustic dance and associated music. And since Bergamo was held by the Venetians for some time and picked up some of the masquery and revelry, which also influenced the commedia dell’arte, it was quite reasonable for the French poet Paul Verlaine to write, in his 1869 poem Clair de lune,

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

This poem’s second line inspired Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque for piano (from which we get his famous “Clair de lune”) and Gabriel Fauré’s orchestral suite Masques et bergamasques.

All of which is very romantic and elevated. Lofty, even. Like that other part of Bergamo, the one you can see from a distance, the one you come from a distance to see. It’s on the mountain – which probably contributed the berg to the name. It’s a bit of a hike up, so you take the funicular.

You get off that and walk a stone-paved street uphill until you get to the old square in the heart of the old high city.

There’s a tower there that looms over the town: the Campanone. It has large bells in it that chime the time every quarter hour. At its base in an equally old building (with, in place of a lobby, an open pit showing excavated ruins) is the Museo Storico di Bergamo, the Bergamo Historic Museum, where you get a window onto the past – figuratively, in its detailed and digitally enhanced displays on the great cultural (musical, literary) and economic history of the town, and literally.

When you have done reflecting on that, you can climb the Campanone. There is an elevator if you prefer, or there are stairs if you prefer. At the top there is a view.

You can see the anfractuous streets of the old high city.

You can see that people actually live in this town (they also drive cars around it – watch out!).

You can see the cathedral.

You can descend before the bells right above your head chime the time.

The alta città is a nice place for wandering among the old narrow stony streets. Don’t expect to do too much shopping; there are stores, but fewer than you may expect, and many of them are not open when you pass by. You may lose your way, but if you do you will within 5 or 10 minutes find yourself somewhere you know, probably back where you started. It is small up there.

You can walk down to a gate and see a view to the spread of the lower city.

You can walk past closed gardens and open university buildings. You can go into the cathedral and see the beautiful architecture and beautifully painted walls. And perhaps you will even get a glimpse of something more.

You can buy one of their ubiquitous polenta sweets.

And have espresso with grappa in a brew pub for 3 euros for two. So much more fitting than Earl Grey tea.

And who knows what else you’ll see of the old and the new?