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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-12-10)

I had hoped to announce in this column that things were looking up in the newspaper world. Glancing at the Durban morning paper, I was galvanised to see the word “Clause” in the front-page lead story. I thought we might be in for a bit of rigorous analysis of sentence construction, but alas! It turned out to be a typographical error, and the writer was actually talking about Santa. Ho, ho, ho.

However, a clue in the next day’s crossword turned me in the direction of words rather than grammar and it’s time we got back to them, anyway. The key word in the clue was “aubergine” and the solution had to contain two words of three and five letters respectively. “Brinjal” was no good – one word, and not enough letters. “Egg-fruit” and “egg-plant” fitted but had no relevance to the rest of the clue. In the end (I know you’re holding your breath), the solution turned out to be “mad-apple”. No, I’d never heard of it either but you have to say this for crosswords – they do sometimes enlarge your vocabulary. The dictionary confirmed that a mad-apple is indeed an aubergine.

The derivations of this term are extraordinary. “Mad-apple” can also mean a gall (an abnormal growth on a plant caused by a parasite) produced by the Asiatic gall-wasp, which rejoices in the official name of “Cynips insana”. That does at least introduce the idea of madness into the confusion. “Mad-apple” itself seems to be a direct translation of the Latin “malum (apple) insanum”, which begat the Italian word “melanzana”.

Ulysses Online has to admit to being very fond of a Greek delicacy called taramasalata, which is based on smoked cod’s roe. In an effort to extend his gastronomic range, Penelope introduced him to something else from the Greek culinary arsenal, called “melitzanosalata”. Guess what? It’s made from aubergines.

So it seems that we start from the Latin “malum insanum” (though goodness knows why the Romans associated this fruit with madness.) That produced the Italian “melanzana”. The Greek neighbours heard the word more or less correctly and pronounced it “melitzana”, hence “melitzanosalata”, while the English, with a certain daft persistence, turned to the original Latin and translated it as “mad-apple”.

To add to the confusion, the Latin “malum” has an affinity with the Greek word “melon”, which means “apple”! You begin to wonder whether it’s safe to eat anything.

To round off this column, two grateful nods to members of our government, the first to Patricia de Lille for clearing up the vexed question of how to pronounce the Latin legal phrase “prima facie”. We needn’t bother with the other pronunciations that crop up from time to time – Ms de Lille has spoken: it’s “preema farkey.”

The second accolade is for Mr Valli Moosa, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. We have recently been plagued with the vogue word “hectic”, used to mean very exciting, amusing, threatening, or…well, pretty much anything you want it to mean. Mr Moosa, boldly hacking a new path through the semantic jungle, gave us this comment on the shortage of airline seats available to would-be visitors: “It’s heretic!” Nice one, Minister, and enjoy your mad-apples.

Contextually yours, Ulysses Online




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