Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Lactating Fish

For those of you who read this blog and know Dina, that she supplied this week’s word should come as no surprise.
milt (milt) — noun: 1. fish semen. 2. the spleen of a domesticated animal.
Uncmmon. I feel like only those in specific professions or subcultures would have reason to refer to fish semen by its proper name. The Wiktionary definition for milt offers the word roe as a synonym. This would be true only certain circumstances: when milt isn’t referring to animal spleens and when roe isn’t referring to fish eggs or crustacean ovaries. More interesting to me, however, is the likelihood that someone — likely an older man, possibly your grandfather — is or was named Milt Roe or at least Milt Rowe, because this is now funny to me. Such men do exist, and I’ll bet they’re not aware that names refer to fish sex in two separate-but-equally hilarious ways.

Wiktionary links milt to the Old English milte, also meaning “spleen,” as well as the German and Swedish words for “spleen,” Milz and mjälte. The American Heritage Dictionary most agrees, but also suggests that milt comes from both Old English milte and a Middle Dutch word spelled exactly the same way. There’s no entry for it at the typically handy Online Etymology Dictionary. Perhaps I’m disclosing my ignorance of anatomy in revealing this, but I don’t quite understand the connection between semen and the spleen. Can anybody explain it to me?

Google Books offers another take on the etymology of milt: Reverend Abram Smythe Palmer’s 664-page Folk Etymology: A Dictionary, published in 1882. From what I’ve read, Palmer seems to debunk folk etymologies with a sense of glee. I’d like to picture him, white-haired and hunched over stacks of books, muttering and sputtering about bastardizations to his beloved English and scribbling out the etymologists’ version of a holy crusade. His book’s subtitle, “Verbal Corruptions of Words Perverted in Form of Meaning, by False Derivation of Mistaken Analogy,” gets quite close to what I imagine Palmer’s mindset was as he wrote this book.

Clear though Palmer’s ambitions may have been, however, I’m not entirely clear what he means in his entry on milt. He writes:
Milt, the soft roe of fishes, so spelt as if identical with milt, the spleen of animals, A. Sax. milte, Dan. milt, Ger. mil. It is really a corruption of milk, so called from its resemblance to curd or thick milk, as we see by comparing Dan. fisfa-melk, “fish-milk,” milt; Swed. mjolke, from mjolk, milk; Ger. milch, milk, milt.
And from this, I’m not sure whether his claiming the notion of milt and milk being related is true or rather a folk etymology. He mentions milt again in his entry on milk, however, so perhaps the former is the case. Regardless of what Palmer says, I’m not what to think, aside from that even a possible etymological connection between milk and a word for semen makes me uncomfortable in a way I’ll try to put out of my mind when I next eat cereal for breakfast.

If that’s not enough to make you feel uneasy, consider this: As we’re on “M” this week, we’re halfway through the alphabetical order I began in the first week of January. Since two runs-through of the alphabet will fit perfect in the span of one year, we are therefore one-quarter done with 2009.

Previous words of the week:

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