In the Volitary thread there was some discussion of the merits of Ian McEwan’s prose, focusing on his story in last week’s New Yorker—which I’m happy to say the magazine makes available to the public at large—”Hand on the Shoulder.” I loved the story and am looking forward to the novel from which it is excerpted (and jamessal, horrified that I hadn’t read McEwan, has sent me a couple of his earlier books for my edification); I provide a paragraph here as a sampler so you can see if you want to read it yourself:
It was a decent summer by English standards, and Tony set a stately pace to the day. We often ate our lunch in the shade of an ancient cotoneaster in the garden. Generally, when he woke from his after-lunch nap, he took a bath and then, if it was warm, he read in a hammock slung between two birch trees. And if it was really hot he sometimes suffered from nosebleeds and had to lie on his back indoors with a flannel and ice cubes pressed to his face. Some evenings, we took a picnic into the woods, with a bottle of white wine wrapped in a crisp tea towel, wineglasses in a cedarwood container, and a flask of coffee. This was high table sur l’herbe. Saucers as well as cups, damask tablecloth, porcelain plates, silverware, and one collapsible aluminum-and-canvas chair—I carried everything without complaint. We never went far along the footpaths, because Tony tired easily. In the evenings, he liked to play opera on an old gramophone, and though he urgently explained the characters and the intrigues of “Aida,” “Così Fan Tutte,” and “L’Elisir d’Amore,” those reedy, yearning voices meant little to me. The quaint hiss and crackle of the blunted needle as it gently rose and fell with the warp of the album sounded like the ether, through which the dead were hopelessly calling to us.
If you’re not fatally put off by a phrase like “high table sur l’herbe,” I urge you to give it a try.
But as you will have discerned by the title of this post, I was struck by one word in particular, cotoneaster. In the first place, I had no idea how to pronounce it, or rather I had a vague idea that turned out to be utterly wrong once I looked it up; it’s /kəˈtoʊniːˈæstər/, either kəTOEnee-aster or kətoenee-ASSter. I don’t know how anyone could conceivably get that from what looks like a jammed-together version of “cotton Easter.” The etymology is equally surprising; historically, it means ‘quince-like,’ the cotone- part being from Latin cotoneum, a variant of cydoneum (malum) ‘quince,’ literally ‘Khaniá (apple),’ as I explained at the end of this post (nine years ago!).
I learned another word here, or rather two:
The United Kingdom had succumbed, one letter announced, to a frenzy of akrasia—which was, Tony reminded me, the Greek word for acting against one’s better judgment. (Had I not read Plato’s Protagoras?) A useful word. I stored it away.
I thought akrasia must be from Greek ‘lack of mixing,’ but it turns out that’s a different akrasia—the OED has it as acrasia “Intemperance, excess (in early use personified); irregular or disorderly behaviour; = acrasy n.”: Etymology: < post-classical Latin acrasia intemperance (1546 or earlier) and its etymon ancient Greek ἀκρασία bad mixture, applied by Hippocrates to meats < ἄκρατος unmixed, untempered, intemperate. The word McEwan is using is the OED's akrasia “Lack of physical or (esp. in later use) mental strength; weakness of will. Also: the state of tending to act against one’s better judgement”: Etymology: < ancient Greek ἀκρασία impotence, want of self-command < ἀκρατής powerless, without authority, without self-command, incontinent ( < ἀ- a- prefix + κρατός power, strength: see -cracy comb. form) + -ία –ia suffix. They add: “In quot. 1853 Mayne apparently confuses this word and ancient Greek ἀκρασία acrasia n.; compare discussion at that entry.” Well, no wonder—it’s virtually impossible not to confuse them! I can’t say I find it, or them, a useful word, or two useful words.