Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On a Word In ZZ Packer's Story: Drupes

Last month, as my advanced undergraduate fiction students and I were reading ZZ Packer's stories, I drew a little box around a word she uses in the first paragraph of "Doris Is Coming," her beautiful evocation of a young woman's personal, public political protest against segregation in the early 1960s: "drupes." This word caught my attention because it both stood out--though I don't think any of the students mentioned it in particular--as yet another example of Packer's precise and brilliant gifts for detail and diction, and because it was and is such a simple and strikingly unusual term. What is a drupe? Do you know? Have you ever heard anyone use this word? If you read Packer's story, did you know this word as you finished the paragraph? Did you look it up?  I remember saying I would look it up the first time I read the collection and did not, so this time I had to do so.

"Drupe" is another name for all stone fruits, which is to say, all fruits with a fleshy outer tissue surrounding the shelled seed or seeds, or pit, in the center.  Among the many common and well-known drupes we encounter and eat daily are: olives, coffee, mangos, jujubes, most palms, and all members of the Prunus family, from peaches and apricots to cherries and plums.  One of my favorite fruits, and one that abounds in the backyard garden--it is a wonderful pest--is the blackberry. Each blackberry fruit consists of scores of tiny drupe-lets, which is why it is such a good source of fiber. You can't not eat its pits, which you must avoid with most other drupes for fear of choking (and in some cases, poisoning)--as happened unfortunately to my great aunt, one of my late paternal grandmother's older sister, about whom my mother used to say that she was "too mean to die," but a plum pit did her in, in her 90s--and of course, that dark coloring and sweet, somewhat tart flavor mean blackberries brim with anti-oxidants.

I was curious to see where the word comes from, and according to Merriam-Webster's International Dictionary, 11th edition online, it appears to derive from the New Latin word drupa, from the older Latin term for an overripe olive, which derives from the Greek term dryppa, olive. It apparently entered the English language quite late, in 1753.  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online says that drupe derives from Latin drpa, druppa, overripe olive, from Greek drupp, olive, possibly alteration of drupeps, ripened on the tree, deriving from drs, dru-, tree, and suggests one review deru- in Indo-European roots + peptein, pep-, to ripen, while also looking at pekw- in Indo-European roots. In Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary, he says the word derives from "L., Gr, olives ready to fall, Gr., a tree; to fall."  One thing I immediately notice is the relation between the Indo-European root deru-, Greek dru-, drupp, and the English word tree.

The Online Etymological Dictionary gives a bit more information on tree's origins; though English is a Germanic langauge, the German word for tree is Baum, related to English's beam, as in a wooden beam, and in Dutch, a tree is a boom (pronounced "boam"). (The general Latin word for tree is arbor, though termes means tree branch, especially of the olive tree.) English's tree is linked to its northern Germanic cognates, it appears, and directly to other Indo-European words meaning tree, wood, and specifically, the oak:

O.E. treo, treow "tree" (also "wood"), from ProtoGermanic *trewan (cf. O.Fris. tre, O.S. trio, O.N. tre, Goth. triu), from PIE *deru- "oak" (cf. Skt. dru "tree, wood," daru "wood, log;" Gk. drys "oak," doru "spear;" O.C.S. drievo "tree, wood;" Serb. drvo "tree," drva "wood;" Rus. drevo "tree, wood;" Czech drva; Pol. drwa "wood;" Lith. derva "pine wood;" O.Ir. daur, Welsh derwen "oak," Albanian drusk "oak"). Importance of the oak in mythology is reflected in the recurring use of words for "oak" to mean "tree." In O.E. and M.E., also "thing made of wood," especially the cross of the Crucifixion and a gallows (cf. Tyburn tree, gallows mentioned 12c. at Tyburn, at junction of Oxford Street and Edgware Road, place of public execution for Middlesex until 1783). Sense in family tree first attested 1706; verb meaning "to chase up a tree" is from 1700. Tree-hugger, contemptuous for "environmentalist" is attested by 1989.
The link of our word tree metonymically to the oak, an ancient hardwood tree, which has mythological resonances, obviously goes quite far back, and crosses cultures. (The English word oak has cognates in the other Germanic languages (cf. O.N. eik, O.Fris., M.Du. ek, Du. eik, O.H.G. eih, Ger. Eiche), from the Indo-European root *aiks, but without cognates outside this family. In Greek, there is an added element: one classical Greek word for tree, dendron, (from the root dendro-), which is even today in modern Greek the word for tree, is also the word for a fruit tree.
Comb. form meaning "tree," from Gk. dendro-, comb. form of dendron "tree," sometimes especially "fruit tree" (as opposed to hyle "timber"), from PIE *der-drew-, from base *deru- "to be firm, solid, steadfast," specifically used for "wood, tree" (see tree).
From this same root we get the Latin durus, meaning hard, strong, so endure, a word that entered English during the Norman period from French, around the early 14th century, meaning "to undergo or suffer" (especially without breaking). It later took on the meaning, later in the 14th century, of "to continue in existence." It comes from the Old French endurer, make hard, harden; bear, tolerate; keep up, maintain, from Latin indurare, make hard, in Late Latin to harden (the heart) against, from in- + durare "to harden," from durus "hard," from PIE *deru- "be firm, solid." So too perdure, duration, durable, obdurate, and so on.

To be firm, solid, steadfast; hard wood, an oak, a tree, fruit; so going quite far back in human history, those Packer drupes.  The word also made me think too of English's verbs to droop (Middle English drupen, from Old Norse drūpa; akin to Old English dropa drop), and of course to drop (the verbal form of the noun drop, a Middle English term, from the Old English dropa, akin to Old High German tropfo drop). There is probably no directly link to drop, droop and drupe, but as ZZ Packer or anyone walking near fruit trees on a late summer or early autumn day can attest, those drupes on a drooping tree branch very well might drop, as they did for our forebears, and once cleaned and bitten into, we recall the childhood admonition: sate yourself, but do not eat the pit.

No comments:

Post a Comment