Thursday, August 02, 2007

flag of pre-dawn

Those stripes: blue, grey, salmon ... will I be admitted into this country?

In the early hours I'm mulling over old words - [1.] corn. Let me not under-rate maize. It is second only to rice as a sustainer of the human population; wheat comes in third. And even here it's now a commonly-grown crop. It has every right to take over our ancient word corn, as in corn chips, corn pancakes, cornflour/corn starch, popcorn (a special variety of maize), etc.

This is all a bit confusing when our cities are full of Corn Exchanges, Cornmarkets, Cornhills and Corn Streets. These placenames embody the older meaning of corn. They do not refer to a particular species of cereal, more to the hard grain in general: the bit that is left behind after threshing, but not yet milled. The word is related to kernel and ultimately to Latin granum and all the grainy granary type of English words that derive from it.

     See you our little mill that clacks
     So busy by the brook?
     She has ground her corn and paid her tax
     Ever since Domesday Book.
                              Kipling


This older, pre-Linnaean meaning remains useful (and therefore in common use) in non-specialist contexts. Few who are not farmers can identify at a distance exactly which arable crop is ripe for harvest in a golden field seen from a car window. Our most common name for this phenomenon is therefore still corn-field. It might in fact be wheat, rye, barley or oats. The one thing it won't be is a field of maize, which looks quite unlike our ancestral idea of a corn-field.

As I write it keeps coming back - I'm smelling the sour oil, almost tasting the toasted corn that is a crunchy snack in Spain (salted along with sunflower seeds, chickpeas, etc). But this memory is all mixed up with the bags of corn I used to go and buy when a child - as it happened, from a windmill, though it did no milling, - I can't remember for which animals, but I remember the silky clacking of the corn running through my fingers and my own attempts to suck and soften that orange-yellow gravel for long enough to be able to chew on it.

Few who are not foresters can identify conifers at a distance, and we have a common name for these trees, too. We call them fir-trees. Paradoxically the undifferentiated word [2.] fir is of no use to botanists but remains a useful standard term in the common language for all needled tree-size "conifirs". Originally it would usually have meant our one native tall conifer, the Scots Pine. But under Linnaean classification this species was seen to be related to the classical pine tree, the Stone Pine of the Mediterranean, and was perforce included in the large genus Pinus. As this information percolated down to literate non-botanists the term "Scots Pine" took over.

The Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) was much planted in and around Rome during the Mussolini era because of classical, Virgilian, association - this tree and the Italian cypress. Mussolini wanted to promote a rebirth of military imperialism. How do these ideas connect with Ottorini Respighi's great tone-poem of 1924, Pini di Roma, - I mean the final episode, in which a Roman legion returning from the East marches dramatically and somewhat terrifyingly into view along the Via Appia? Anyway, somewhere between the massive popularity of Respighi's work and the Fascist tree-planting scheme the Stone Pine (aka Umbrella Pine) became the avenue tree of choice in Rome. (According to Roberto Piperno, the popes had preferred elms; 19th-century planters favoured plane-trees.)

Humans have always spread plants around the Mediterranean and the Stone Pine may have been introduced to Italy - its native area the Iberian peninsula. Extracting the pine-nuts by hand from the large cone requires effort and an indifference to getting messy - the cone is very sticky with resin and the nutshells, once you have peeled off the vestigial wings, are covered in a sort of sooty dust. These very tough shells can then be cracked (carefully, without squidging the kernels) using pliers. It's a slow amusement, a slow way of eating not very much, on a hot pavement, somewhat akin to using your thumbnail to split open the leathery sunflower seeds known as pipas that are sold for almost nothing in large bags and leave little drifts of shells around café tables.

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? (Matt. 7:9)

Botanically the word fir survived only as a constituent of the English names for two other genera, the Silver Firs and the Douglas Firs - neither native to the British Isles. This is typical of the confusions embodied in non-scientific names - a linguistic category falling somewhere in between the Latin scientific name and the ancient pre-specific term. For example, many trees include the word "cedar" as part of their lay name, though botanically they are not cedars. People named exotic species by analogy with what they knew; timber merchants named any fragrant wood "cedar" if they possibly could, because the timber then commanded a better price. The same thing happens with flowers; e.g. the New World evening-primrose named by analogy with a popular Old World flower (which it is not related to and doesn't really look like - it's only from a distance, sprinkling a grassy bank with pale yellow, that you can sometimes catch the resemblance - it's important not to be able to see the tall tough stems). These names continue to sow confusion; it's not unusual to find cosmetic products using oil of evening-primrose whose packaging in Britain is illustrated with the familiar spring flower and all its lambkin and Easter bunny associations.

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