Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Question for Spatula Number One

This week’s word is more notable for its meaning than its origin. Either way, it’s something few people would have reason to use often, but that’s exactly what you should have come to expect by now. It’s also has the distinction of being the first word-of-the-week that I learned mere days before it was featured on A.Word.A.Day, which it was late last year.
espalier (i-SPAL-yer or i-SPAL-yay) — noun: 1. a tree or shrub that is trained to grow in a flat plane against a wall, often in a symmetrical pattern. 2. a trellis or other framework on which an espalier is grown.
I wouldn’t have guessed that the “i-SPAL-yer” pronunciation would be the preferred one, but like I said — it’s not something most of us would have reason to speak, except for a certain kind of garden party or tour of some historical estate. I’m also not sure, exactly, why anyone would want to force a tree to grow into a shape its DNA wants so desperately to fight, but then again it’s mere meddling compared to the Dr. Frankenstein work that is the art of animal-form topiary. It is our desire, I suppose. After all, if man left well enough alone, we wouldn’t today have toy poodles and the appletini.

The word, according to Wiktionary, can also be a verb, as in, “Hey, Hector, let’s espalier this holly tree! I just can’t stand it in its offensively natural tree-shape.”

The end result is entertaining enough:

image from wikipedia

The etymology, perhaps, is less so, at least until I get away from trees and into swords and human bodies.

The American Heritage Dictionary claims espalier comes from French by way of the Italian spalliera, “shoulder support,” which in turn comes from the Italian spalla, “shoulder,” which goes back to the Late Latin spatula, meaning “shoulder blade.” This surprised me, as the Latin and scientific word for this particular body part is scapula and I’d never thought of the words as having a connection before. The same dictionary’s entry for spatula — which, by the way, can mean refer to the kitchen tool or what sounds like a tongue depressor, apparently — credits it as coming from a diminutive version of the Latin spatha, meaning “broadsword,” which elevates the act of scraping cookie batter from a bowl to whole new heroic levels. (The Latin spatha — and also the botanical term spathe — come from the Greek spathē, also meaning “a broad blade.”) From what I read, American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t reconcile these the two similar-sounding, similar-looking words scapula and spatula, which I thought was strange.

The more familiar backblade-related word, scapula, just meant “shoulder” in Late Latin, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. This site also claims that its origin is unknown, but it suggests a similar word: skaphein, meaning “to dig out,” and notes that not only does the bone look a bit like a digging implement but that early people may have actually used scapulas for digging. For its entry for spatula, the Online Etymology Dictionary offers little new, but proposes a connection with the word spade.

I couldn’t make any more sense of the situation. A Google search for scapula spatula didn’t turn up much, aside from evidence of the body part acromium, which confusingly means “the spatula-shaped outgrowth of the scapula.” I also turned up a Wikipedia page on the practice of scapulimancy, which would be so much cooler if it were called spatulamancy. Confusingly, the Wikipedia page for spatulamancy redirects to the one for scapulimancy.

Presumably, there’s more of a connection between scapula and spatula than I’ve found using my limited resources and my armchair etymologist’s license. It seems possible, at least, that the “c” and “p” in the former turned into the “p” and “t” in the latter, though I couldn’t imagine why. Of course, I would greatly appreciate an explanation about how these words converge — and if they don’t, why not.

Wasn’t I supposed to be talking about trees? Damn.

Previous words of the week:

1 comment:

  1. There's no way to relate the words without proposing some irregular sound changes. Unless there's some good evidence, we have to assume they're unrelated.

    I very much enjoy this part of your blog btw.