Words are never idle

It all started a long time ago.  Malcolm would run through the church-yard, over the fences and  across the Marsh for the morning train from “Wells-on-Sea” (there’s a story there, in itself). Then, hauled by a D16 Claud Hamilton locomotive, it was on to Fakenham and its former grammar school. So much romance, already …

These images are from King’s Lynn, but the sentiments are correct:

From that time Malcolm recalls a quick-fire exchange borrowed from a radio comedy show, being rehearsed in one of those slam-door, and generally corridor-less (and so blessedly unsupervised) compartments. Could the source have been The Goon Show?

— That’s blackmail!
— Blackmail is a dirty word.
— OK, call it “ipecacuanha”. That’s ipecacuanha!
— Ipecacuanha is a dirty word.

Emetic knowledge

As a result came this life-long fascination with words, and an ability to spell some of them — including “ipecacuanha” — with reasonable felicity. You, who shared that compartment, you know who you are. It’s all your fault.

The all-knowing OED informs us that ipecacuanha (practice makes perfect!) is:

The root of Cephaëlis ipecacuanha, N.O. Cinchonaceæ, a South American small shrubby plant, which possesses emetic, diaphoretic, and purgative properties; also popularly applied to various forms in which the drug is employed.

That we all knew, didn’t we? There are two things, at least, here Malcolm admits he didn’t know:

  • there is bastard ipecacuanha (Asclepias curassavica) — which presumably makes an even dirtier term, but would do nicely in the British greenhouse;


  • again from the OED, the etymology of ipecacuanha (more practice, more perfect) is Portuguese ipecacuanha from Tupi-Guarani ipe-kaa-guéne.

According to Cavalcanti, cited by Skeat Trans. Philol. Soc. 1885, 91, the meaning of ipe-kaa-guene is ‘low or creeping plant causing vomit’. The word is said to be a descriptive appellation applied to several medicinal plants, the proper name of the Cephaëlis, which produces the ipecacuanha of commerce, being poaya.

Well, the Portuguese bit is straightforward, but “Tupi-Guarani” pushes the envelope. That brush with wikipedia helps; and Malcolm discovers this family of South American languages also gives us  jaguartapiocajacarandaanhingacarioca, and capoeira.

Enough of this!

Indeed. Well, there’s another becoming-dirtier-by-the-eruption word — this time of central American origin — on today’s news-page:

Mexico’s Popocatepetl Volcano has blasted a tower of ash over nearby towns and villages prompting authorities to consider the possibility of evacuations.

Popocatepetl sits roughly halfway between Mexico City and the city of Puebla, meaning some 25 million people live within a 90-km (60-mile) radius of the volcano.

Wikipedia, being prissy, insists the spelling properly should be Popocatépetl, adding:

The name Popocatépetl comes from the Nahuatl words popōca ‘it smokes’ and tepētl ‘mountain’, meaning Smoking Mountain.

This is getting silly

Put up with Malcolm a moment longer, for such words have an effect on a young mind. It went like this:

When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand…

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school —
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

And if you can stand the gross animation, the voice of W.J.Turner (even if his spelling isn’t) is apparently authentic:

Out of a dusty anthology, through a classroom window, the image becomes more authentic, more demanding, more addictive than any close reality. So long as it remains just an image …

It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople

When Malcolm flew to Istanbul those few days at the start of the month, the monuments — the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Sultanahmet Mosque, the 336 pillars of the eery Basilica Cistern  — impressed.

Even so, there was underlying, lurking guilt. More mental images forever compromised by real experience.

It’s only a story, a fabulous tale

Blame it on a great guy, and formidable intellect called Ruarc Gahan, then Head of Sutton Park School, near Howth Head.

Summer of 1964-5,  Gahan and a small group of colleagues borrowed the school mini-bus to drive to Istanbul. After various alarums and excursions (mainly a couple of break-downs which involved close acquaintance with slivovitz and the like) they reached a score of kilometres short of Istanbul.

Legend has it that Ruarc pulled into the roadside, got out, sat on a rock and said:

“I can’t do it. It’ll destroy all my illusions.”

And they came all the way back.


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Filed under Dublin., fiction, History, leisure travel, Literature, Music, Norfolk, railways, reading, Wells-next-the-Sea

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