Wednesday, June 6, 2012

And another other thing

James Murray, principal editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. He looked a bit like an ancient Greek, but nevertheless allowed the word 'chestnut' into his dictionary. Photo courtesy of Urlesque.
While we’re on the topic, chestnuts should also have a new name in English, as their current name makes no sense. Try to imagine explaining to an alien life form what chestnuts are. Chest + nuts can only mean protein-rich polyps growing somewhere in the vicinity of your nipples. Granted, my argument presupposes that the alien life form in question understands the words ‘chest’ and ‘nut’ in isolation (plus the rules for forming regular plurals in English, but surely since they are regular), but still. If I were this hypothetical alien and I heard a human ask me to pass the chestnut stuffing I’d assume I was among a bunch of skin-tag-fetish cannibals and promptly run back to my spaceship.

I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary on this one, just to be sure that my opposition to the word ‘chestnut’ is not wholly misplaced. And, as is often the case when I consult the OED, being one of those smug so-and-so’s who frequently consults dictionaries knowing full well beforehand that her starting hypothesis will be proven correct, I found myself vindicated (of course). The word chestnut really doesn’t make any sense, not even from an etymological point of view.

It would seem that our modern word ‘chestnut’ can ultimately be traced back to the Greek word καστανέα (go on, say it three times fast) which some people much geekier than I think refers to a city in the ancient region of Pontus, and which others (still geekier) think refers to a different city somewhere in the Thessaly region. Either way, the Greek word derives from the name of an actual, at-one-time-existent city, which means that in ancient times at least, καστανέα probably made perfect sense to its users, and could also be easily explained to alien life forms (though I would have liked to see them try to explain the togas).

Classical antiquity did not just give us democracy, folks, it also gave us a sensible name for chestnuts. What did we modern people do? We made a laughing stock of democracy and totally mutilated a perfectly good word. If I were an alien life form, I don’t think I’d even bother landing here.

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