Mind your language

Romance liver

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

‘Ha, ha!’ said my husband, waving the Spectator letters page in the air. ‘Ha, ha, ha!’

He was overcome by the news that I had mistakenly said MCC stood for Middlesex Cricket Club instead of Marylebone Cricket Club. I did not point out that he had read the column before it was sent in and said nothing at the time. Instead I began to shell some peas at the kitchen table, always a soothing occupation. No tear rolled down the side of my nose.

Before I relate my secret consolation, I’d like to mention the chant ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ that has become so popular of late. It derives, via football chants, from a riff dominating ‘Seven Nation Army’ by the White Stripes (2003).

Football chanters are as ingenious as REM’s Michael Stipe notoriously is in making words fit rhythms, and if ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ doesn’t quite match the White Stripes riff, unless you turn Oh into Oh-oh, that did not stop them using the chant for the names of Santi Cazorla or Robin van Persie.


Anyway, as I shelled, I contemplated a fact that I had learnt a few days before. It concerned liver.

I had thought it odd that ‘liver’ in Spanish is hígado, a word like higo, ‘fig’. Indeed I once ordered in a restaurant what I thought was one and was surprised to be served with the other. Not only that, but the Italian for ‘liver’, fegato (also stressed on the first syllable) resembles fico, ‘fig’, too.

The explanation, I discover, is that the Romans enjoyed iecur ficatum, ‘fig-stuffed liver’. It wasn’t stuffed with figs in the cooking, but rather the animals supplying the liver had been fed on figs. The Latin iecur, ‘liver’, is related to hepar, the Greek word for it, which gives us hepatic in English. But the Romance languages of the Mediterranean — Sardinian, Venetian, Catalan — went with the figgy side of life.

In a way it is like the Spaniards calling olives aceitunas, ‘oilies’. The specific word oliva exists, but you never hear it. This is as though one used cheddar to mean ‘cheese’ or burgundy to mean ‘wine’, then dropped cheese or wine from one’s vocabulary.

When I’d finished shelling the peas, my husband had fallen asleep.

 

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