Daily Archives: May 22, 2009


Does this word remind you of virgin, verge, or virgule? It’s related to two of the three, and presents an irony with the third. It has such a vigour of voice to it, it might seem to refer to something quite earthy, or perhaps to a low-cut blouse, as the v may suggest. But although this word comes – unchanged in form – from the Latin for “rod” or “twig,” it has transferred neither to root nor to branch but to the skies above, and the plunging neckline is replaced by a veil – one that doesn’t plunge far enough. If you look at clouds, you sometimes see a hanging fringe that looks like it might be rain, but, like a torture of Tantalus, it never reaches the thirsty earth. The aerial virgules (virgule: “little rod or twig”) may seek intercourse with the watercourse, but they merely whisk the air (whisk is also related, more distantly, to virga), perhaps brushing an airplane (on occasion, one belonging to Varig), but never reaching the ground, frustrating Fred Astaire and Burt Bacharach alike. It is but a verge on a cloud, merely verging on the ground – verge, referring at first to the rod (virga) of office, and then to an area subject to the jurisdiction of the Lord High Steward (within a twelve-mile perimeter of the king’s court), came thence to refer to precincts, bounds, limits, and ultimately fringes. So certainly, with this chaste veil of rain (chased but not met), this word relates also to virgin? Ah, but here is the twist to this taste. Virgin comes from virgo (remember, astrologists?), which, despite its apparently masculine -o, is a feminine noun. Virga is also a feminine noun, yet it refers to something more masculine (and verge has been used by zoologists to refer to molluscs’ male members). But how is it that with the -a you have the rod, and with the -o you have the maiden? And we see that virgo, agitated, can bring vigor, while virga may borrow a letter to produce a gravid result. Yet with this virga, never the twain shall meet.