Friday, October 20, 2006

The Daily Hump: Mushrooms and Toadstools

There's so much to say about mushrooms and toadstools from a historical and cultural perspective that I wouldn't know where to begin nor is WordHumper the forum to explore the intricacies of my favorite fungi. The best I can do is suggest you read Elio Schaecter's excellent In The Company of Mushrooms*. As for me, I'll be limiting this discourse to purely an etymological examination.

Mushroom comes to us from the Medieval Latin musariō, musariōn- via Old French, Anglo-Norman then finally Middle English. Per the Online Etymology Dictionary:
Barnhart says [mushroom is] "of uncertain origin." Klein calls it "a word of pre-Latin origin, used in the North of France;" OED says it usually is held to be a derivative of Fr. mousse "moss," and Weekley agrees, saying it is properly "applied to variety which grows in moss."
Don't worry, I don't know who Banhart, Klein or Weekley are either.

Toadstool is one of my favorite words in the English language. The OED and many other dictionaries explain the word as "fanciful"; a compound of toad + stool that was first coined in Middle English. Toads were regarded as extremely poisonous and toadstools generally only refer to inedible or poisonous mushrooms. In my readings I also happened upon an alternate etmology which suggests that toadstool had nothing to do with toads but rather the German tod, death. As Wikipedia states:

The term [toadstool] dates from the fourteenth century and is a fanciful [there is that word again!] name combining toad, which were associated with poison, and stool, which is an archaic term for the head of a mushroom. Another explanation comes from the German translation of tod-stuhl, literally, "death-chair," referring to the shape of the fruiting body and also to the slow, agonizing death from mushroom poisoning for those who eat it.
Regardless of which etymology is correct, toadstools are named for their toxicity. Given the association of toads with poison I investigated whether the English toad could be related to the German tod; alas, the OED claims that although toad can be traced as far back as to the Old English tādige it has no cognates in other languages and is thus considered of unknown origin.**

In conclusion, next time you're shrooming with the hippies, smelling a stinky phallus, hanging out with the hobbits, Smurfs, mycologists, or Brothers Mario, or just eating a slice of pizza stop and think about what a lousy and boring world we'd live in without the ubiquitous mushroom.***

*Completely unrelated, I also suggest you read Spy: The Funny Years.

**It should be noted that Princess Toadstool is the best character available in Super Mario Bros 2 (photo: SMB1). Obviously, I'm not the only person who wondered why Mario would be romantically involved with someone whose last name is based upon a fungus responsible for "slow, agonizing death"; in late 1996 Nintendo changed her name to Peach. So gay.

***I'll be out of the country for a few days so the next hump will be on Wednesday.

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:: posted by David, 8:17 AM


Your readers might also like "Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard: the Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists" by Nicholas Money. He's an entertaining writer who happens to be a professional mycologist. (Not a smelly hippy but an actual scientist)
Blogger Loocite, at 2:29 PM  

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