Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Daily Hump: Asparagus

I like asparagus. A lot. It ranks as one of my favorite vegetables along with broccoli. And I like the idea of the Asparagus Fleet: boats kept by the Roman emporors whose sole purpose was to fetch more asparagus.

But asparagus also has a dark side. I'm not going to go into details but let's just say be wary of men selling antique maps who keep a silver asparagus on their credenza. Anygay, asparagus, the word, has had a strange history. Although in Modern English the word is asparagus, in Middle English the word was sperage. This came from the Old English sparage, which came from the Latin asparagus, which came from the Greek asparogos. And the Greek came from the Persian asparag, meaning "sprout" or "shoot."

I know what you're thinking. "Hey, wait a second! Why did the Modern English word revert to the Latin/Greek? Has the whole world gone mad?" Yes, actually it did. As the AHD notes
After the rebirth of classical learning during the Renaissance, Greek and Latin achieved a lofty status among the educated. As a result, etymologists and spelling reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries tried to give English a classical look by Latinizing or Hellenizing the spelling of words that had Latin or Greek ancestry (and even some that didn't).
Thus, circa 1600, the herbalists and horticulturalists of the day decided "asparagus" should be spelled asparagus.

The story didn't end there though. Shortly after the forced transformation the word was given a folk-etymology: sparrow-grass. Asparagus didn't return to common parlance until the 19th century when, as the OED states, "sparrow-grass [was left] to the illiterate."

asparagus [Online Etymology Dictionary]
asparagus [OED]
asparagus [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 11:25 AM


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