One of my favourite translation fails was in an article on food poisoning. There was a list of things that one might eat that could cause poisoning. In the English, one of the items was toadstools. The French translation rendered this as excréments de crapaud. That’s French for “toad excrement” – i.e., toad stools. Ah, yup, that will probably make you sick too, but…
They might about as readily have translated it as outils de crapaud, “toad’s tools”, I suppose. But, then, why didn’t the original English just have mushrooms? The translator probably wouldn’t have mistaken that for “rooms of mush”. (What kind of mush? um, could be toad stools, I guess… or are those the furniture in the mush room, put together with the toad’s tools? or held together with metal ribbets, I mean rivets?)
Thing is, toadstool and mushroom aren’t perfectly fungible. I mean, they do refer to the same thing, broadly speaking. But you don’t eat steak and toadstools or cream of toadstool soup. Toadstools tend to be thought of as the poisonous counterpart of edible mushrooms (yes, people will sometimes speak of poisonous mushrooms, but edible toadstools? not really). This may be related to the fact that toads were long thought of as poisonous – though toadstool has been around since the 1300s (the earliest spelling is tadstole), and the specifically “poisonous” sense didn’t start to stick to them until around 1600.
And toads are ugly. Frogs may be nice and green (and sometimes poisonous, too), but toads are nasty-looking things, the amphibian equivalent of those decorative gourds you see all over the place in later October. Toadstools, by comparison, are often seen as particularly garish. And always, of course, shaped suitably for sitting on. It’s true that there is a stereotypical image of mushrooms, but try this: do a Google image search on mushroom. There’s a certain amount of variety: white, brown, some polka-dotted. Now do one on toadstool. You will see almost nothing but red ones with white polka dots.
Trippy, eh? Why is that? Who came up with that stereotype? Well, if you look over the pictures, you will notice that some of them are photographs. There’s an actual kind of mushroom that is red with white polka dots. It’s Amanita muscaria. Ah, Amanita! Deadly, right? Actually, the deadly kind of Amanita is the plainer-looking Amanita phalloides, along with a few other types. Amanita muscaria is quite unlikely to kill you. But it will take you on a trip, and not just to the emergency room. It’s a hallucinogen. Eat it and you may see all sorts of vivid things, not limited to polka-dotted mushrooms with toads on them.
Funny thing, though. Look again at all those pictures of toadstools. A lot of them are freakin’ cute. Check out this little girl in a toadstool costume. And all those little houses in toadstools, and that little Nintendo toadstool guy. Come to think of it, my mom’s kitchen always had – still has, I think – flour and sugar jars shaped like toadstools. What other poisonous or psychoactive thing would you model food containers on?
So we have a bit of a bivalency here. We have this word that really is trying to be ugly – toad is a word that names an ugly creature and sounds kind of like turd but with that groaning /o/, and stool is at best a dull, serviceable word and at worst, well, we’ve already covered that – and it names something that is poisonous, but something that is also magical (the old word for “hallucinogenic”) and kinda girly-pretty. And those polka dots are even visible in the word, those little o’s. (Are the t’s like fungi? Is the d like a toad or bunny or the l like a rearing caterpillar? Your call.)
I guess what flavour you get from toadstool depends on which side you eat… Go ask Alice.