COUCH, QUACK, QUITCH, WITCH.

My eye happened to fall on the entry couch grass in Merriam-Webster and the first definition was quack grass. I found that amusing; then I noticed the etymology said “alteration of quitch.” Intrigued, I went to the American Heritage and found that they actually had an entry for quitch grass, whose etymology read “[Middle English quich, from Old English cwice; see gwei- in Indo-European roots].” (The PIE root gwei- means ‘to live’ and gives us the native quick as well as the borrowed Latin viv- and Greek bio- and zo(o)- words.) And it said couch grass was “Also called quack grass, witch grass.” I found that an interesting cluster of forms, and I thought I’d pass it along.
Today, by the way, is [a month from] Jelly Roll Morton‘s birthday. He may not have invented jazz, as he used to claim, but he sure helped get it off on the right track. Happy birthday, Doctor Jazz! [Oops: I took the birthday info from another site without checking; it's actually Oct. 20, as a commenter points out. Let this be a lesson to me. Oh well, any day is a good day to listen to Jelly Roll!]

Comments

  1. Livefyre gets mixed reviews as compared with WordPress’s native comment system, but it does cut down on the spam. I haven’t tried Akismet, but it’s specifically designed to work with WordPress.

  2. … i think, Jelly Roll Morton was born an 20. October!?!

  3. Larkin, who was so wise about jazz, had a blind spot about Morton.
    I like the old rogue.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TD6ILlIMW-g

  4. Charles Perry says:

    One of Jelly Roll Morton’s distinctions is that his songwriter, Andy Razaf, was Madagascarian (Andriamanantena Paul Razafinkarefo).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Razaf

  5. Before asking here if the pronunciation is universaly cooch or if the spelling pronunciation was also used, I checked with M-W to find the latter listed first! I have never (according to my increasingly fallable memory) heard it referred to as an item of furniture.
    @all speakers of the current imperial language: do any of you say cooch?

  6. Couch St. in Portland is pronounced cooch.

  7. @Charles: aren’t you thinking of Fats Waller’s lyricist?

  8. Charles Perry says:

    Indeed I was. Jazz is all Malagasy to me.

  9. @all speakers of the current imperial language: do any of you say cooch?
    Not I, but then my disposition is far from naturalist (though my wife does her best to expand my horizons), and to me it is purely a dictionary term; I would never have guessed you could say “cooch” (and that pronunciation is not given in AHD). The OED says (in an 1899 entry) “A variant (apparently originating in the southern counties, where still pronounced /kutʃ/) of quitch,” so I must ask: are you from the southern counties?

  10. Pronounced “cooch” grass here in Melbourne, Australia. Quite a common word too. My intuition is confirmed by this lawn care website.

  11. I second iching’s comment. A word (pronounced /ku:tʃ/) that I was familiar with from quite a young age, along with kikuyu (pronounced /kaiku:yə/). Usually in a lawn setting, but also heard in a farming context.

  12. No, I’m not from the southern counties, but my grandmother was, and I learned the pronunciation from my mother. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard other people mention the grass.

  13. I’ve looked for an online Canadian English Dictionary, without luck. I did find that cooch is a southern (counties) variant of quitch. Intuitively the stress is on the i, but if it had been on the u . . .

  14. Yes, my father (Hertfordshire) pronounced it “cooch”, but actually called the stuff “twitch”.

  15. And that, it turns out, is yet another entry form! OED (entry published 1916):

    twitch, n.2

    Pronunciation: /twɪtʃ/
    Etymology: Altered form of quitch n.1
    Couch-grass, Triticum repens; = couch n.2
    1595 T. Lodge Fig for Momus iii. 48 If thou espie within thy curious knot, Some tangling twitch, that doth thy flowers rot.
    1620 G. Markham Farewell to Husb. 48 The sand that bringeth forth nothing but wyld Twitch, Bryars, Thorn-bush, and such like vndergrowth.
    1733 W. Ellis Chiltern & Vale Farming 264 Lands which are over-run with Twitch or Couch-grass.
    1816 G. Sinclair Hort. Gram. Woburn. 222 The Trifolium medium is inadmissible [in alternate husbandry] on account of its creeping roots constituting what in arable lands is termed twitch.
    1821 J. Clare Village Minstrel l. 202 The big clod..a hiding-place Breaking off the scorching sun Where the matted twitches run.
    1827 J. Clare Shepherd’s Cal. 29 From teazing twitch, that in the spongy soil, Clings round the coulter.
    1884 F. J. Lloyd Sci. Agric. 256 Of the weeds..none is more common or more troublesome than twitch, or couch grass.

  16. It occurs to me that -ou- is a Fr. spelling for -oo-, and my grandmother was of Norman English descent.

  17. I guessed that switch grass, the biofuel source, might be the same, but it’s not; see Elymus repens vs. Panicum virgatum.

  18. Couch in Australia appears to be Cynodon dactylon, known as Bermuda grass in the U.S. It appears to be different from what is known as couch-grass elsewhere, Elymus repens. That could be why UK sites talk about how to get rid of it when it invades your lawn while Australian sites tell you what a great lawn grass it is.

  19. Ha! I can’t decide whether the wide variation in the meanings of popular names of plants and animals is a bug or a feature.

  20. “Ha! I can’t decide whether the wide variation in the meanings of popular names of plants and animals is a bug or a feature.”
    A feature. Do you want to have to wrestle “sčədadxʷ” into English or just extend “salmon” to include the the various oncorhynchus species in the Pacific?

  21. marie-lucie says:

    LH: I can’t decide whether the wide variation in the meanings of popular names of plants and animals is a bug or a feature.
    It must be a feature, for plants especially, or for small, insignificant animals such as insects or even small birds.
    People living a traditional rural lifestyle know two basic kinds of plants: widely cultivated ones, which are more or less standardized both in name and kind since they have been spread voluntarily among populations, whether by adopting the neighbours’ plants or by taking seeds, fruits etc with them to other areas for use or for trade; and wild plants, whether desirable (edible/useful), undesirable (poisonous/thorny/invasive etc), or indifferent, which are found on the land but not used (if at all) beyond their immediate locations. Those wild plants are much more likely to have been named and nicknamed time and time again according to some specific feature, including resemblance to known useful plants (hence names such as “bear’s” or “crow’s” or “devil’s” [plant]). When people settle in a distant, very different area, unknown plants found in the new place may receive the names of similar, or similarly used, plants in the original country (eg N Am “corn” for maize). With the passage of generations, as the people who knew both types of plants disappear, their descendants forget what the original plants looked like, and an old name may be adopted which seems to fit a newly encountered plant. Perhaps this is what happened with the Australian vs the European-to-American “couchgrass”.
    I encountered something similar among some native people in BC (in one specific group – I don’t know about others). They had a word which I was told meant “acorn”, but there were no oaks within hundreds of miles. On the other hand, everybody knew that it was something growing on trees, that squirrels ate, and both squirrels and “acorns” were very common in their area. No doubt when these people were in school they had been shown children’s books about animals, in which squirrels were nibbling at things almost as big as themselves, fallen from trees: “acorns” of course! the cones of firs, pines, spruce, etc. The similarity of “a cone” and “acorn” in an r-less pronunciation (no r in these languages) must have contributed to the misunderstanding.

  22. widely cultivated ones, which are more or less standardized both in name and kind
    Not even this seems to be totally true. Names of fruits and vegetables are often subject to variation by dialect or region. For example the different German names for ‘potato’. And while the eggplant may not be ‘widely cultivated’ in the sense you mean, it has managed to get different names in English.

  23. And of course cf. corn.

  24. Corn in North America has the same meaning as elsewhere: the chief grain eaten in a particular place.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    I meant in a general way, not necessarily applicable to all plants.
    I was also considering the historical dimension, traditional rural life before the modern period of easy and fast communication, food transportation, generalized education, mass media etc.
    JC: True, corn was originally simply “(major) grain”, but if you ask people to draw a picture of “corn” you will get very different drawings in England and the US.

  26. In Australia, corn is maize. It’s definitely not the chief grain eaten in Australia.
    Actually, I was under the impression that ‘corn’ was an abbreviation of ‘Indian corn’.

  27. “widely cultivated ones, which are more or less standardized both in name and kind” – I immediately thought of a different counterexample to this: the traditional names of some wine grapes differed across close areas of france, and the same names were occasionally applied to different grapes.
    Is couchgrass different from crabgrass?

  28. I was under the impression that ‘corn’ was an abbreviation of ‘Indian corn’.
    That is so. Actually, more wheat than maize is currently consumed as grain by human beings in the U.S., as some 40% of corn production becomes ethanol.

  29. Crabgrass is a different thing (see Digitaria at Wikipedia).
    A friend of mine in correspondence kept talking about ‘thatchgrass’ in S. E. Asia. I was mildly interested to know what it was and when I looked it up I found it was just damned old blady grass (Imperata cylindrica, known to the Americans as cogon grass).

  30. marie-lucie says:

    s/o: the traditional names of some wine grapes differed across close areas of france, and the same names were occasionally applied to different grapes.
    It is true that different varieties have different names, especially because the specific qualities of grapes and wines depend a lot on the nature of the soil, but the generic names (la vigne ‘grapevine’, le raisin ‘grapes’) are the same. Similarly there are many varieties of apples (only a few are widely commercialized), but they are all called apples. Such cases differ from that a lot of wild plant species which are known by different names in different areas but do not have a generic name, as shown by “couchgrass” and its avatars (“grass” itself embraces a very large variety of plants).

  31. Hey there just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly.
    Good laugh at that one.
    With havin so much content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement?
    No, nor spelling errors either. This spam is so common that instances of plagorism slightly outnumber instances of plagiarism in Google’s (inaccurate) counts.

  32. I saw the wikipedia article, it just looked the same to me. Which I think proves Marie-Lucie’s point.

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