PLATO AND POTATO.

John Emerson of Idiocentrism is trying to trace the Aristotle/bottle, Plato/potato school of doggerel back to its source. So far he’s gotten it back to Lord Byron, Don Juan (Canto I, 204; Canto VII, 4) and Conrad Roth of Varieties of Unreligious Experience has found a near-match in Ronsard; if anyone knows of earlier versions, cite away!


[Turns out Conrad was just funnin’!]

Comments

  1. Okay, I’ve really got to come clean about this. I did in fact make the Ronsard up. To be fair, I didn’t think John would believe me–after all, I rhymed Platon with ‘potaton’, which never existed. I thought he might find it funny….
    My bad.

  2. Naughty, naughty Conrad!
    But it is pretty funny, now that you mention it…

  3. The purpose should be to rid the world of doggerel, not to legitimise it by tracing its source!
    There’s far too much doggerel praising Rugby League players of old on Australian weekend talkback radio.
    I vote for its immediate criminalisation.

  4. Well, Samuel Butler (the elder) certainly preceded Byron and so did Donne; feeble rhymes were in decorum for satire in Donne’s day (nowadays we go in for exaggerated rhyme instead).

  5. John Emerson says:

    It was funny. It seemed rather unlike Ronsard, but I thought that he had another Rabelaisan side unknown to me, as Bellay might also have.
    “Potaton” didn’t bother me at all — you’re always needing to deal with odd spellings before about 1800.
    It rather destroys the premise of my post, however.

  6. Doggerel studies will never get the respect it deserves. But the objective scholar must never allow value judgements to divert him from the path of science.

  7. I quite agree! Best poet of the 20th century: Ogden Nash, who, incidentally used both Plato/potato and Aristotle/bottle, in different poems. No, really!

  8. marie-lucie says:

    Ronsard, probably the most famous of French Renaissance poets (the next one is “Du Bellay”), could not possibly have rhymed “Plato” (“Platon”) with a word for “potato” even if he had wanted to mention both in the same verse. The potato was not generally known in Europe in his time, let alone eaten as it was thought the whole plant was poisonous. It was known to botanists, as “malum terrae”, much later translated as “pomme de terre” meaning ‘earth apple’. Linguistically the closest French word to “potato” is “patate”, both being traced to a word of Arawakan origin (Haiti) for the sweet potato. “Patate” has not replaced “pomme de terre” but is used very informally in France for the ordinary potato. The Robert dictionary gives the date 1842 for the use of “patate” with this meaning (rather than for the sweet potato), apparently from the use of “potato” in English (anglomania having started in the meantime), so this is centuries after the time of Ronsard. Again under the influence of English, “sweet potato” (still an exotic item in Europe) became “patate douce” rather than just “patate”, a word until then unknown to the general public.

  9. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie : « Again under the influence of English, “sweet potato” (still an exotic item in Europe) became “patate douce” rather than just “patate”, a word until then unknown to the general public. »
    It should be checked whether the French expression “patate douce” really comes from “sweet potato”. In some tropical French-speaking countries — or “counties” — faraway from Europe it’s been a foodstuff that has been known for quite a long time. Some traditional recipes or some toponyms show that it’s not new there. Moreover, there is never any confusion between “patate” and “pomme de terre”, which are two different things there.
    Therefore it doesn’t look impossible that in temperate French-speaking countries the expression “patate douce” originally came from the French (or Creole) spoken in these places instead of English.

  10. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie, back home I have been able to open a few books. It seems that in French patate is older than pomme de terre. The primary definition given for patate by Le Petit Robert is “Liane tropicale (convolvulacées), cultivée pour ses gros tubercules comestibles à chair rosée et sucrée” (dating from 1599 for patate, 1519* for batate), while pomme de terre was used for the first time in 1716 according to this dictionary.
    This is more or less confirmed by Dauzat et al. (Dictionnaire étymologique), who date batate from 1525, patatte from 1582 and today’s patate from 1601 (Champlain), while the use of pomme de terre would have been made common in France by Parmentier between 1770 and 1780.
    When it comes to potato, the primary meaning given by The Oxford Universal Dictionary is: “= Batata. Now known as sweet or Spanish potato” (1565). It’s only in 2) that the plant Solanum tuberosum (common potato) is mentioned (as dating from 1597) and in 2) b. the tuber itself (1663).
    In fact English has just one name — potato — for two fairly different plants, one being a creeper related to the species producing the flower known as “Morning glory”, the other one being the several varieties of the most cultivated tuberous crop in the world.
    * so maybe Ronsard could have eaten some “bataton”…

  11. marie-lucie says:

    (patate – pomme de terre)
    Thank you for your more extensive searches and your contributions, but I don’t think that what you found is in contradiction with what I wrote:
    “patate” (from an indigenous word) referred to begin with to the sweet potato, an indigenous staple in the Caribbean but not generally imported into Europe (it keeps less well than the ordinary potato, especially during a long ocean voyage); “pomme de terre” referred to the now ordinary potato, again an exotic plant from South America but which eventually became a staple crop and cheap source of food in Europe.
    So even though the word “patate” is attested in writing earlier than “pomme de terre”, it did not come into general use among the French population until much later, and when it did it applied to an already acclimatized foodstuff, not to the exotic original known only to a few. Of course it makes sense that the words “patate” and “pomme de terre” apply to different foodstuffs in the Caribbean where the sweet potato comes from, but in France the words both apply only to the ordinary potato, and the sweet potato is still not well-known. (I had never seen sweet potatoes, even in pictures, until I came to North America – quite a while ago now – and I knew the words only from reading about exotic locales).
    Once “patate” was adopted – in France – as a familiar synonym for “pomme de terre”, a different or modified word was required to refer to the exotic sweet potato, though not in the Caribbean where the two foods kept their separate names (and the “pomme de terre” probably does not thrive in the climate). Apparently the first use of “patate” to mean “pomme de terre” in France happened at a time of “anglomania” and it is likely that “patate douce” is a direct translation of “sweet potato”. The word “doux/douce” ‘sweet, soft, mild, etc’ is used to qualify a few other foodstuffs in opposition to varieties which look like the edible ones but are too bitter or picante for comfort, as in “amande douce” ‘sweet almond’ in opposition to “amande amere” (grave accent on the first e) ‘bitter almond’ – you can’t tell them apart just by looking at them. The potato we eat does not have such objectionable qualities to begin with and the “sweet potato” does not look like a potato which turns out to be sweet. As for the French- or creole-speaking inhabitants of the islands, there would have been no reason for them to change their “patate” to “patate douce” once they became familiar with “pomme de terre”, a different foodstuff – and indeed they did not.
    I should add that the word “patate” – as used in France – is very colloquial and has a much more homey connotation than the neutral “pomme de terre” – you never see “patate” written on a restaurant menu – it is so well integrated into the language that is also used as a colloquial or slangy synonym for roundish body parts such as the heart and the head, which are never called “pomme de terre”.

  12. The closer Ronsard was to the arrival of the potato, the more likely it was that he would have used a non-standard form. I was probably wrong to think that Ronsard could have been a joker, but if he had been one, a potato in some form might have shown up in his works.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Sure, just as we all know Shakespeare’s favourite food was “taters”, and didn’t he use this word in one of the sonnets?

  14. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie, I think that what you said on the 3rd of September was very pertinent to the question of Ronsard knowing about the potato. The only little doubt I had then was about sweet potato giving birth to patate douce. (As a matter of interest, where did you take it from?)
    I’d just like to stress that French isn’t spoken in France only. As you rightly pointed out, patate is used in France as a colloquial expression. I am afraid however that I haven’t lived there long enough to know if “patate” is also used to mean “batata”; and, if so, if it is rather frequently, just sometimes or almost never. But as I said before and as you specifically underlined regarding the Caribbean, there are some places on Earth — like the country which is mine — where patate has never meant pomme de terre (by the way a crop that grows quite well here). And this is what made me wonder whether the French word “patate” used for Ipomea batatas — or “patate douce” — could have come from English.
    But you may be right, in the end, regarding the later-added adjective “douce” (like in sweet corn maybe, though maïs doux doesn’t sound quite French). It is true indeed that the stodgy little Martian cakes aren’t — yet — called “gâteaux patate douce”, as it is true that in Rodrigues there is no “Caverne Patate douce”. So maybe it was added in Europe at a later stage to distinguish the patate/potato from the patate douce.
    « [Patate] is so well integrated into the language that is also used as a colloquial or slangy synonym for roundish body parts such as the heart and the head »
    “Patate” for the head? Personally I have never heard it this way. “Citron” would probably do: “Il n’a rien dans le citron” — “He is empty-headed”. And for the heart I know of no vegetable that is used to describe this part of the human anatomy. “En avoir gros sur la patate” would probably be equivalent to “En avoir gros sur le cœur”, but in this expression I have never understood that “patate” was there for “heart”.
    PS: It’s amazing to see the amount of discussion we can have on the patate/potato, isn’t it?

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Siganus,
    Although I am most familiar with the French spoken in France, I try to keep in mind other varieties, especially if they are directly relevant to the topic. Since some people have been insisting (some of them perhaps with tongue in cheek) that Ronsard, a Frenchman of the Renaissance (roughly contemporary with Shakespeare, and in poetry considered someone of a similar high level of artistry) , could have not only eaten potatoes but used a word for them in his poetry, as a French person I felt I had to comment. (Some commenters seemed to forget that the first mention of Ronsard and potato together was meant as a joke!).
    Re “patate douce” as a translation of “sweet potato”, I don’t have a reference but infer this from the Robert dictionary, which says that the use of “patate” (originally, and still in the Caribbean as you say, “sweet potato”) for “pomme de terre” is because of the English “potato”, and dates from the 19th century. Just as the British, who (in Britain) ate potatoes and (at least botanically) needed to distinguish the (for them) exotic tuber as “sweet potato”, once the French had adopted “patate” as a nickname for the potato, they also needed (and must also have adopted from English) a phrase for the (still now exotic) “sweet potato”. Of course in the Caribbean it would have made no sense to call the “pomme de terre” “patate” since everyone there knew the “patate” already (I didn’t know that potatoes grew in the Caribbean – after all there are lots of different varieties of potato in South America, but definitely the sweet potato does not grow in Western Europe under normal conditions, that is in fields in the open).
    Re “la patate”: “en avoir gros sur la patate” does mean “en avoir gros sur le coeur” – literally to have a heavy weight on one’s heart about something – the Robert dictionary backs me up on this. However, if someone referred to “ma patate” (a very slangy expression) one would interpret this as “my face” or “my head” rather than “my heart”.
    Re “sweet corn” – there are many varieties of maize (according to Robert another word from Haiti), called in North America “corn” – “sweet corn” is cooked and eaten by humans in the fresh state, but there are other varieties grown for different purposes, for oil, flour, animal feed, etc. Maize is now grown extensively in Europe, probably for purposes other than direct human consumption, but this is a fairly recent phenomenon and (at least in France) maize does not seem to be part of the ordinary diet as it is in North America. If I heard or saw “mais doux” (the i has an umlaut sign on it) I would assume that it was a translation of English “sweet corn”. In Quebec maize is called “ble d’Inde” (acute accent over the e of ble), that is literally “Indian corn”.

  16. Siganus Sutor says:

    Dear Marie-Lucie, let’s carry on with our potatous conversation, thanking LH in advance for allowing us to use some disk space, and hoping that we are not too cheeky in so doing. (But at least we shouldn’t be bothering too many people, as it seems that the two of us are the only ones left on this post.)
    Do you have gros sur la patate following what some commentators might have said? Maybe they were joking too. ²…
    If “en avoir gros sur la patate” is indeed to be heavy-hearted, I have never heard patate alone meaning heart. At least not in the French I’ve met so far. (But la patate has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.)
    Regarding the head, I must confess again that patate for face is unknown to me. “Il l’a pris en pleine poire”, yes, the face being sometimes likened to a pear. But, again, in other forms of French maybe…
    « Just as the British, who (in Britain) ate potatoes and (at least botanically) needed to distinguish the (for them) exotic tuber as “sweet potato”, once the French had adopted “patate” as a nickname for the potato, they also needed (and must also have adopted from English) a phrase for the (still now exotic) “sweet potato”. »
    ► Would you believe that I’ve been thinking about all this during the weekend? I was asking myself how could it be that if in French the word patate had been known for centuries to describe the batata it had to be differentiated afterwards (when?) with an extra adjective, i.e. “douce”. Part of the problem might lie in the fact that the dictionaries we are looking into do not sort out in which part of the “francophonie” these words and expressions were used. But still…

  17. Don’t worry, I love this kind of extended discussion! This might be another illustration of the fact that lexicographers have traditionally been very careless about terms having to do with food and cooking.

  18. Siganus Sutor says:

    Yes, indeed. And we saw this “problem” with the names given to animals too (e.g. moose/elk), didn’t we? (It’s even worse with migratory species, the tuna for instance.)
    But then it keeps some people busy afterwards… Isn’t it fun sometimes?

  19. I wish I had more time, but as long as it doesn’t involve Autumn, waves and women’s eyes: Hertz Nazaire’s English-Kreyol Dictionary (a word list for Haitian Créole) has pòmdetè for “potato” and patat for “sweet potato”.

  20. It just occurred to me that neither marie-lucie nor Siganus Sutor have mentioned “avoir la patate” (a typically neo-French expression to my ears, the kind of things you hear on commercial radio stations): “Aah, mais j’ai une de ces patates, aujourd’hui!” (=”j’tiens une de ces formes”; “j’ai la pêche”, etc.).

  21. marie-lucie says:

    (LH, why does the window for writing comments sometimes disappear while one is previewing one’s comment? then it is impossible to retrieve one’s text. I have wasted a lot of time twice today trying to add another comment, only to have it disappear. I don’t want to do it a third time, please advise. I won’t preview this one).

  22. marie-lucie says:

    (LH, why does the window for writing comments sometimes disappear while one is previewing one’s comment? then it is impossible to retrieve one’s text. I have wasted a lot of time twice today trying to add another comment, only to have it disappear. I don’t want to do it a third time, please advise. I won’t preview this one).

  23. I don’t know; it doesn’t happen to me, so I’ve never had to investigate (not that I’d know how). I apologize on behalf of my software.

  24. marie-lucie, maybe it is a problem with your browser/navigator.
    I tested the preview (with Mozilla Firefox under WinXP) first with the pop-up window (which I normally never use), then using the comment “box” at the bottom of the individual post page, and it works fine in both cases (including for this very comment, which I just previewed).

  25. marie-lucie says:

    well, that usually works for me too, but sometimes after scrolling through the preview and getting to the bottom of all the postings, the last thing is “Post a comment” but that is the bottom of the pop-up window – so the name, etc and comment window are no longer there. Shutting the pop-up window then (what else can be done?) erases the comment window forever.

  26. Sorry, I am not sure I understand: the rectangular box inside which you write your comment is indeed at the bottom under “Post a comment”, but once you push the “Preview” button, it is at the top of the individual page or pop-up window, under “Previewing your Comment”: from top to bottom, you then have your comment as it will appear if you push “Post”, the “Name” etc. fields, the box if you need to edit your comment(with the “Preview” and “Post” buttons below), and finally the previous comments in chronological order.
    Is anything of those missing when you preview your comments?

  27. marie-lucie says:

    As i wrote above, usually all that you describe is in place and i am able to push the Post button after previewing my comment, but SOMETIMES – i have no idea why – when scrolling back down from the preview at the top, I reach “Post a comment” but that is the end of the pop-up window – the name, email and comment box do not appear at all – “Post a comment” is the bottom of that window, period. I can then scroll back up and down but that is useless as only the comments by everyone appear but the box with my new comment is gone, there is no way to push any of the buttons again. This will not happen now because I am going to push the Post button without previewing.

  28. Siganus Sutor says:

    Jimmy, yes “avoir la patate” — or “avoir la frite” — is to be full of beans! But I wonder if Marie-Lucie and I have had the ambition of being patatously exhaustive…
    However I could add that in Mauritian French “une patate” is also a plump person, someone that is not very attractive, bref un boudin quoi! It is often used in conjunction with “grosse”, une grosse patate being an overweight person — with the idea of lethargy hanging around in some cases.
    “Patate chaude” can also be seen every now and then, but it seems to me that it comes straight from a not-very-French “hot potato”. (I wonder if the Académie française will swallow this one day.)

  29. marie-lucie says:

    Dear potatologists,
    There must definitely be something wrong or at least temperamental about my software, browser or whatever, or perhaps there is a jinx. Last night I wrote another comment but gave up after rewriting it twice, only to have it disappear each time after I looked at the preview. This morning, I tried again, and this time did not try to look at the preview but only pressed Post. Sometimes if Post does not seem to respond after a while, I press it again, but then the comment appears twice, so I only pressed the button once this morning – but obviously it did not go through. Perhaps the system is tired of linguistic potatology, or would it be potatological linguistics? but you guys seem to have no problems. I’ll give it a rest for now. (if this shows up twice you will know why)

  30. Siganus Sutor says:

    The spell of the potaton…
    Marie-Lucie, what you can do in order not to lose your text is to copy-paste it in some kind of Word file before trying to post it.
    (By the way I never use the preview function, and it hasn’t bothered me so far.)

  31. Siganus Sutor says:

    Language Hat: « This might be another illustration of the fact that lexicographers have traditionally been very careless about terms having to do with food and cooking. »
    It seems that in the U.S.A. you have another potatous source of confusion: the so-called “yam sweet potato”. Apparently sweet potatoes are also called yam in Southern U.S., while the real yam (Wolof nyami, Portuguese inhame, French igname) is quite something else: it can weigh up to 150 pounds and reach a length of 7 feet. Hard to introduce in any ordinary pressure-cooker…
    The debate about it may not be as fierce as the one raging about the origin of the Polynesian sweet potato, but it seems tricky enough for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to require that “the label “yam” always be accompanied by “sweet potato.”” Have you ever heard something about it?

  32. Siganus Sutor says:

    P.S.: While browsing the web yesterday for the daily potato business, I came across another funny thing regarding the star fruit (carambola). I wonder whether it is appropriate to ask some question about it here — we might get completely out of subject — or do it in private instead.

  33. (Wolof nyami, Portuguese inhame, French igname)
    I have heard that this is where the Jamaican patois word “nyam” (to eat) comes from. I don’t know how accurate that claim is, though.
    Coming next: “Physique de la patate et Pataphysique” (that’s vintage blogocosm: I’m old enough to remember the Oulipo craze on American weblogs).

  34. Siganus Sutor says:

    Jimmy : « I have heard that this is where the Jamaican patois word “nyam” (to eat) comes from. »
    It can’t be the case as it has been proven already that this Jamaican word comes from the English expression yum-yum, which itself comes from the French miam-miam, which itself comes straight from the French colonial past when in Senegal some newcomers started asking if it was good to eat “igname-nyami”. As the answer was ‘yes’ and as the Frenchmen seemed to have enjoyed it very much…

  35. marie-lucie says:

    (“sweet potato” vs. “yam”)
    Two kinds of sweet potato are grown in the Southern US (at least I know the two which are imported into Canada): they are about the same size and shape (pointed at both ends) but one is a nondescript colour with yellowish flesh and takes much longer to cook than the other one, which is often bigger with reddish-brown skin and orangey flesh which takes on a darker orange colour and becomes very soft and sweet with cooking. The first one is called “sweet potato” and the second one often “yam”. I did not know until fairly recently (though before this potatological discussion started) that the orange kind was not a real “yam” but another kind of sweet potato.

  36. Karlikurod4

  37. marie-lucie says:

    (from Siganus)
    I was asking myself how could it be that if in French the word patate had been known for centuries to describe the batata it had to be differentiated afterwards (when?) with an extra adjective, i.e. “douce”. Part of the problem might lie in the fact that the dictionaries we are looking into do not sort out in which part of the “francophonie” these words and expressions were used. But still…
    (My answer): the WORD is recorded from the 16th century (meaning that it appears is at least one written work dated from that time) but the THING was not known to the general French public (in France), otherwise they would not have been able to use it as a synonym of “pomme de terre”. But in places where the patate was a staple food, and the pomme de terre was introduced later, there was no synonymy.

  38. That makes a lot of sense.

  39. Siganus Sutor says:

    Yes, it does. (We were speaking of different French.)
    But what is this “Karlikurod4” that can be seen further up? Is it the name of some GM potato? Is it a new variety of “potatron”, the protein-rich potato developed in India?

  40. Siganus Sutor says:

    Oops! got it wrong, (and Conrad has nothing to do with it): protato, not “potatron”…

  41. Siganus Sutor says:

    Oops! got it wrong, (and Conrad has nothing to do with it): protato, not “potatron”…

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