The joy of knowledge for its own sake -- witnessed by the language of food


I grew up mostly in the country. So ceaselessly does nature offer sights and sounds that I don't remember seeing my first butterfly. But years later, I witnessed a small child discovering what was obviously the first butterfly of his life. Watching his awareness, pursuit, examination, wonderment, I found myself in a moment of epiphany - recognizing, perhaps, something of the nature of ecstasy.

Since then, it has stuck in my mind that a well-lived life must insist such experience should happen each day. If days pass, which inevitably they must, without the equivalent of a first butterfly, at least each day must be lived in the certainty that such a moment is soon to come.

A prudently provident personal library is an infinite store of butterflies awaiting discovery.

Any book worth its ink can hold such promise. But there is a specially valuable sort of volume. A new one has just come to me, and I commend it without a single grain of salt: "Ladyfingers & Nun's Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names," by Martha Barnette" (Times/Random House. 213 pages. Barnette is a former Washington Post reporter who now writes for Allure. She is fascinated - nay, obsessed, transfixed - by the intercourse of languages, especially ancient ones. In her introduction, she gives a splendid tribute to the late, great Dr. Leonard Latkovski, her professor of classical linguistics who led her to do her previous book, "A Garden of Words" (1992).

Pasta fondnesses

There are similar books to this one. "The Glutton's Glossary," by John Ayto, is a particularly engaging one. Many of the more charming cookbooks do the job in bits and pieces, though I know of no volume as rich in food-and-language lore as this.

Anyone faintly fond of pasta knows that the Italian language and Italian food fascination cannot resist visual metaphors - vermicelli, little worms; linguine, little tongues, and so on, but it might come as a surprise that the German noodle word, spaetzle, means little sparrows. Some Spanish dialects call popcorn palomitas, little doves.

It's tempting to run a selected inventory of such terms here. But go find them for yourself.

There is an enchanting chapter: "Edible Eponyms and Tasty Toponyms: Foods Named for People and Places." Rich delvings into mysticism inform the delicious chapter "Angel's Hair, Devil's Droppings, Nun's Tummies, and Monk's Balls: Food Names Associated With Religion and the Supernatural." There are amazing numbers of food forms in other languages that do not bear translation into English in a family newspaper. Some are highly fanciful and others simply vulgar. The book ends with a learned but delightful sort of glossary of food terms and processes that goes miles beyond food.

Finally, the power of the book is that it is a celebration - often verging on ecstasy - of the joy of learning, of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Where has that gone? Sacrificed to politics? Here is a scholar who exudes awareness, whose references, tracings, pursuits of origins in a dozen or more languages and how they interplay pulse from every page. And this learnedness, rather than being tedious, is an exultation.

So dense is her scholarship and so demanding her precision, that sometimes the book seems tough slogging. It is so only if you insist on treating it as a tyrannical text, fearing a 10-minute pop quiz at any moment. If you read the book dancing from delight to delight, ignoring nothing but not doing drills, it rollicks along.

Going through the immense intricacies of food language makes even stronger the argument in my mind that civilizations have learned to make superb food and grand wine only when they have found themselves in stasis: When there is nowhere to go, geographically or in social order, a tacit decision turns a culture's main energies to ornamenting the here and now and tomorrow. America, as least so long as it was going ever upward and forward, developed the food form that is eaten best on a escalator: the hamburger.

So Ms. Barnette's book draws heavily on mature civilizations, with centuries of elaborate food celebration.

Browsing along

Her book goes into my shelves near a dozen or so others - none about food 'that are my particular favorites for browsing (a food word, of course). Among them, almost at random, for I offer no measured inventory of appraisals here:

Of course Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary" is one of the great joys, although more provocative, by intent, than informative. I never tire of "Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things," by Charles Panati (Perennial Library); "What's What, A Visual Glossary of the Physical World," by David Fisher ** and Reginald Bragonier. (Hammond); "Why Do They Call It Topeka: How Places Got Their Names," by John W. Pursell (Citadel Press); forever, "Bulfinch's Mythology," by Thomas Bulfinch (first published in 1855, available in various editions); "The Dictionary of Imaginary Places," by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi (Macmillan).

There are others that delight me regularly, and dozens I have not run across yet, or have failed to cling to. Browse for your own. Any competent bookseller can find the current editions of the books I mention here, or lead you to an out-of-print source.

There is, I suppose, a danger that sampling of bits and pieces of knowledge may produce a sort of faux-sophistication. It can encourage the kind of accumulation of trivia that presents a bogus sense of learnedness. But if that's your taste, why not?

Do you know the word "graminivorous"? Ms. Barnette instructs that it means "grass eating." I had always assumed it referred to people who consumed phonograph records.

So much to learn! So little time!

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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