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.


  1. You can imagine how much fun I had looking up Cotoneaster in my garden guide to see how to care for one growing in my yard. I’d been using the word all my life, but it wasn’t until I was close to 30 that I saw the spelling. Now I love the word, just because the spelling was such a surprise.

  2. marie-lucie says

    Upper-class Britishers seemed to be quite fond of cotoneasters. At least these trees are mentioned as growing on estates in quite a lot of novels. It was a surprise to see what the leaves and fruit look like: so normal, so devoid of the vaguely cottony appearance I had (just as vaguely) imagined if I thought about the matter at all (Fr coton). Of course I had no idea of the actual (or recommended) pronunciation either. Thanks LH for adding to our knowledge of the world, linguistic and otherwise!

  3. We should know that it rhymes with faster from Hardy’s triolet, which makes this a bit bizarre.

  4. A lot of philosophers use “akrasia” as weakness of the will. I think I first saw it that way in a Donald Davidson essay.
    The excerpt they published of Solar was amazing, and then the book was fairly disappointing. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen here.

  5. When I was a child cotoneaster horizonalis would be mentioned from time to time, and I’d wonder what on earth it might look like – perhaps an orchid or a clematis. Finally this suburban red & green clump was pointed out to me. The ‘cotton easter’ pronunciation is one of several English gardeners’ shibboleths. Eschscholzia is another hurdle; they (the gardeners) say ‘esSKULLsha’, and if you try for a less provincial pronunciation you won’t be doing yourself any favours. Our dentist used to call Nemophila ‘NemmoFEELya’, and was marked down for it, though he was a perfectly good dentist.

  6. is a community where the intention is to fix bad habits of thought and to become fitter, happier and more productive to delay the impending robot hegemony (no, really!). Weakness of will comes up an awful lot there, and they find akrasia in that sense a useful word.

  7. Such is my aversion to Ian McEwan’s writing that I wanted to snottily point out that you’d have a job getting much shade from a cotoneaster; they’re mostly small shrubs. But I have to be fair, he doutbless refers to the Himalayan Tree Cotoneaster, Cotoneaster frigidus, introduced 1824 and widely grown in parks and gardens, sometimes attaining a respectable 10 meters. (But privately, I still think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.)
    Granted that both are woody plants of the rose family, any more particular resemblance of cotoneasters to quinces eludes me. That’s not uncommon with these old names. Their murky pre-Linnaean origins frequently involved different species from the ones they’re attached to today. Maybe that’s the explanation here.

  8. Bathrobe says

    The article says: “None of this fit with what I came to know of him later”, which sounds very strange coming from an English writer. Does the New Yorker force all writers to fit in with their grammar and spelling rules, or was McEwan just trying to be nice?

  9. Bathrobe says

    The archaic word “strife” was in heavy use in those rackety days. Archaic? Is he serious?

  10. mollymooly says

    I heard my mother say ‘cotoneaster’ long before I saw it written down. When I read it, I paused and clicked with the same satisfaction as solving a tricky crossword puzzle clue.

  11. The ‘cotton easter’ pronunciation is one of several English gardeners’ shibboleths.
    Meaning that’s how they say it, or that’s how they don’t say it?

  12. marie-lucie says

    If the tree is Himalayan, why didn’t they use a word from a local language as an everyday name for the tree? or was the cumbersome and misleading coTOneAster chosen in part for its pedantic value?
    I see that the French equivalent is cotonéaster, less misleading as to pronunciation but just as pedantic.

  13. I heard my mother say ‘cotoneaster’ long before I saw it written down.
    Me too.

  14. Hi marie-lucie,
    Well, Cotoneaster is a genus with many species, including some European ones (e.g. C. integerrimus), so the name was already well-established by the time horticulturists became aware of the Himalayan species.

  15. I heard my mother say ‘cotoneaster’ long before I saw it written down.
    Me too.

  16. That’s how they don’t say it, which is why that recording of MMcM’s is peculiar. It’s kəTOEnee-ASSter (which I wouldn’t rhyme with ‘faster’, but maybe Hardy would have). There’s also a completely different-looking family of flowers called Aster, which are daisies, and another Anglo-American family called Astor, one of whom used to own (& edit) the Sunday Observer.

  17. Yes, most botanists would probably assume by false etymology that -aster has something to do with daisies or stars. What Hat didn’t really bring out is that -aster expresses incomplete resemblance with usually pejorative overtones. So it sort of approximates to “poor excuse for a quince”, “Poor Man’s Quince”, “Bastard Quince”, “Dog Quince”….. I suppose I should have figured that from Spanish “politicastro” etc.

  18. I don’t know how anyone could conceivably get that from what looks like a jammed-together version of “cotton Easter.”

    On seeing it just now, I immediately thought “‘Cotton-easter’? Wait, there’s only one ‘t’, so it’s probably ‘’.”

  19. Bathrobe says

    approximates to “poor excuse for a…
    Like poetaster?

  20. Yes, exactly.

  21. The archaic word “strife” was in heavy use in those rackety days.
    Nun endlich ! “Strife”, or rather “strive” (with a slightly different meaning, of course), is the word I was trying to remember in the other comment thread recently. There I was imagining that there is an English verb “strite” corresponding to “stritten” (as somebody had written), but couldn’t find it in any dictionary.

  22. I have mentioned (maybe at Crown’s blog) that, even though neither of us is a dentist, my wife and I once found ourselves holding the wrong end of the stick botanical-pronunciation-wise. The shrub in question was Buddleia. And being such a pair of know-it-alls we at first thought that everybody else had it wrong.

  23. I just checked my Vergleichendes und etymologisches Wörterbuch der germanischen starken Verben and (rather surprisingly) there is no Germanic strong verb of a form like *streit-.

  24. dearieme says

    What is the favoured pronunciation of clematis?

  25. dearieme says

    P. S. One of the pleasant features of cottoneasters is that they hotch with bees for much of the summer.

  26. there is no Germanic strong verb of a form like *streit-
    ?? The everyday word for “to fight, quarrel, dispute” is streiten [stritt, gestritten].

  27. cottoneasters … hotch with bees for much of the summer
    OED: “The place is fair hotchin’ with rabbits”, and “Tripped over a stool. The place hotches with them.”
    But also to move by short heavy leaps as a frog or toad does: “The old woman said, ‘I bustled through the crowd, and she hotched after me’.”

  28. Bees too sometimes seem to move by short heavy leaps. You know they’ve figured out why bees are disappearing; it’s pesticides.
    my wife and I once found ourselves holding the wrong end of the stick botanical-pronunciation-wise
    On the other hand, it’s only thanks to you that I can spell wistaria. I too may have mentioned that beautiful Buddleia is considered a working-class shrub in (southern) England. I tried to get one, but it doesn’t thrive in Norway.
    I say clemmer-tiss, with equal stress, but many people (including my wife) say clem-ARE-tiss.

  29. What’s this about “wistaria” ? MW gives that as a variant spelling of “wisteria”. I’ve never seen “wistaria”. I have seen wisteria, but not so’s I remember what it looks like – sort of hangy-purply, innit ?

  30. Ø said it’s named after a Mr Wistar:
    1819, formed by botanist Thomas Nuttall, Eng. botanist, in allusion to Amer. anatomist Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) of Philadelphia. The -e- apparently is a misprint.
    You may be interested to know that his grandfather, John Wister (note spelling), a successful wine merchant and landowner, built the house known as Grumblethorpe (‘taken from the popular comical novel Thinks-I-To-Myself by Edward Nares’).
    Wistaria can also be white.

  31. ?? The everyday word for “to fight, quarrel, dispute” is streiten [stritt, gestritten].
    Yeah, that’s why I said it was surprising. The OED (s.v. stride) refers to:

    the strong verb meaning to strive, quarrel: Old Frisian strîda, (Middle) Dutch strijden, Middle Low German strîden, Old High German strîtan (Middle High German strîten, modern German streiten); of the same or similar meaning are the weak verbs, Old Saxon strîdian (Middle Low German strîden), Old Norse strîða (Norwegian, Swedish strida; Danish stride is now conjugated strong)

    But that was over a century ago; my guess is that by the time Seebold did his Wörterbuch in the 1970s, Germanists had decided the original verb was weak and it was German that had innovated by making it strong. I’d be glad to hear from anyone who knows more about it, though.

  32. I just read the first few pages of that novel by Nares. Interesting stuff (1811) in tune with the outgoing 18C, full of self-consciousness chasing its tail while pulling faces (Faxen machen) at the audience. I adore his use of commas, for instance “one,)” down below. It routs the Krauts:

         I know not under what particular planet I was born;-I never asked any cunning man to cast my nativity, and, not being born under Mercury, I was never cunning enough to find it out myself; but if there be any one of them, that has any peculiar influences in the way of consideration, reflection, soliloquy, no doubt I was born under that ; for, being more given to taciturnity than loquacity in my boyhood and early youth, and being sickly besides, the part I generally bore, in most of the companies I speak of, was, to sit quite quiet, and make observations and remarks to myself upon the conversation and conduct of others : but by degrees I got into a habit, not only of thinking, but of talking to myself; and if any thing was done or uttered, at any time, that suggested certain un-utterable remarks, I fell into that particular state of soliloquy and mental reflection, which I cannot possibly define or describe, otherwise than by the vulgar and trite, but significant phrase, “THINKS-I-TO-MYSELF.”
         It is past all conception how continually I was driven to have recourse to these mental remarks; scarely a word was uttered that did not suggest something odd and whimsical to my watchful mind–often did it make me quite tremble, for fear I should, by any accident or inadvertency, utter aloud what was passing only in my thoughts; I suppose, had it happened, it would at any time, and on a sudden, have made such a group as nothing but the pencil of an Hogarth could have adequately described; for, in our neighbourhood, as in most others, (though a very sociable one,) the truth is, there was such likings and dislikings, such jealousies and suspicions, such envyings and emulations, such a contrariety of feelings and sentiments, as would have set every thing in an uproar in a moment, had not the utmost and most unwearied attention been paid, by all parties, to the preventing any discovery of the truth.

  33. What is the favoured pronunciation of clematis?
    Merriam-Webster gives four: KLEM-ətəs, kli-MAT-əs, kli-MAY-təs, and kli-MAH-təs. I use the first because it sounds best to me, but they’re all OK; I think my wife uses the second.

  34. my guess is that by the time Seebold did his Wörterbuch in the 1970s, Germanists had decided the original verb was weak and it was German that had innovated by making it strong. I’d be glad to hear from anyone who knows more about it, though.
    Now I understand the point you were making. For sure I ain’t that anyone.

  35. I think I first learned the word “clematis” from T.S. Eliot:

    Time and the bell have buried the day,
    The black cloud carries the sun away.
    Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
    Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
    Clutch and cling?
    Fingers of yew be curled
    Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
    Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
    At the still point of the turning world.

  36. On that site I like the name Salt Lack City.

  37. I also like the word meetup at that site.
    It’s new to me. I wonder why I haven’t heard or seen it before. Of course I’ve heard writeup, but rarely. Have I been in the wrong circles?

  38. As for the word of the day, I’ve heard only co-to-nay-ass-ter. Or maybe I hear -nee- but always think -nay-.

  39. I think I first learned the word “clematis” from T.S. Eliot
    Eliot also has “branches of wistaria” circumscribing “a golden grin” in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”

  40. Acrasia is the enchantress who presides over the Bower of Bliss in Book Two of The Faerie Queene.

  41. Yes, wistaria (or wisteria) grows like topsy, drapes itself all over the place, blooms profusely and in drooping clusters of purple or white, and then makes great big long seed pods.
    My just-so story about its name:
    name of guy: spelled Wistar (pron. wister?)
    name of vine, spelled Wistaria (pronunciation problematic: you want to stress the second syllable, but the guy’s name had a schwa: wisTAHRia?)
    pronunciation wisTAIRia
    spelling Wisteria
    pronunciation wisTEERia

  42. Yes, that sounds very likely; compare the modern hypercorrect “poon-jab” for Punjab, where the -u- was originally intended to indicate the central vowel normally represented in English by that letter.

  43. “I like the name Salt Lack City.”
    A trail-worn, crusty wrangler swore ruminantly it was Salt Lick City.

  44. Hat: I first met clematis in that very poem, and always assumed it was cle-MAY-tis.

  45. Hans Caspar Wüster -> John Wister -> Caspar Wistar
    My theory is that – being German – they were seeking a rational, consistent spelling of schwa.
    So, really, it’s Wüstaria. Or possibly Wurstaria, the blooms are dangling-sausage shaped. The usual German name seems to be Der Blauregen (auch Wisterien, Wistarie, Glyzinen, Glyzinien, Glycinen oder Glycinien genannt), the same as in Norwegian (blåregn).
    The Code of the Wüsters: I looked for pictures of Wistaria in the gardens of Totleigh Towers (aka Highclere Castle), but I can’t find any.

  46. On my way home yesterday I passed for the n-th time beneath what may be wistaria drooping from the top of a wall next to the sidewalk. I had never noticed it before. Next thing you know, I will be recognizing banks of stepmothers in municipal flower beds.

  47. If it was in bloom, I’m shocked that you hadn’t noticed it before. You’ll never inherit Grumblethorpe at that rate. It’s supposed to grow here, but always freezes when I try. I have got at least six varieties of clematis still living, though.

  48. marie-lucie says

    Blauregen (auch Wisterien, Wistarie, Glyzinen, Glyzinien, Glycinen oder Glycinien genannt), the same as in Norwegian (blåregn)
    “Blue rain”, how nice, even if it actually purple. The French word is glycine.
    I also like the pale colour of the leaves, even when mature.
    I am surprised you already have glycines in bloom, but I forgot that our spring here is very late in coming.

  49. I first met clematis in that very poem, and always assumed it was cle-MAY-tis.
    Interesting! I think I followed the “turn to us… clematis… bend to us” trail of crumbs to arrive at my pronunciation.

  50. The Wistaria is already in bloom in March in southern England.

  51. marie-lucie says

    Yes, but the North American Atlantic coast is not warmed by the Gulf Stream but cooled by the Labrador Current.

  52. We say CLEMatis in our house. (But then we also say buddleLAYa.)
    I enjoyed this from WiPe:
    Wisteria can grow into a mound when unsupported, but is at its best when allowed to clamber up a tree, pergola, wall, or other supporting structure. Whatever the case, the support must be very sturdy, because mature Wisteria can become immensely strong with heavy wrist-thick trunks and stems. These will certainly rend latticework, crush thin wooden posts, and can even strangle large trees. Wisteria allowed to grow on houses can cause damage to gutters, downspouts, and similar structures. Its pendulous racemes are best viewed from below.
    The last sentence seems overly opinionated. I like to look at them at eye-level too. Like a Japanese painitng.
    I like “clamber”. I think “heavy” would make more sense than strong. And “wrist-thick”? That’s nothing. We’ve got one as thick as your calf.

  53. “Blue rain”, how nice, even if it actually purple.
    Aren’t purple flowers of all kinds generally called “blue”, at least in English?

  54. Kew Gardens spells it wisteria and that’s good enough for me. I wouldn’t call the colour “purple” personally: somewhere between lavender and lilac, more like. But I’m not aware English calls all purple flowers blue, unless you think bluebells are purple. We had a wisteria growing over a pergola in the garden of my last house: it needed cutting right back at least every other year, but every spring it provided what was, effectively, an extra room by entirely roofing the pergola with foliage. Wisteria flowers have a lovely scent, barely noticable, generally, until you get right up and bee-personal.
    I wasn’t aware buddleia had a working-class image: it’s certainly often found as a self-set invader on waste ground, maybe that’s why. I see Wikipedia insists on the spelling buddleja, with a “j”, in the grounds that Linnaeus spelt it that way, and so does the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. Strikes me that the botanical name may be buddleja, but the English name is surely buddleia.

  55. There’s a song by Prince called Purple Rain, I don’t know whether it’s about wistaria. As I keep saying, wistaria also comes in white. I love the pale leaves too. I’d say the bluish colour can be anywhere from pink and violet to blue.
    I think buddleia’s English working-class image is from pre-WW2. I can’t remember the whole story.

  56. Greg Lee says

    If the second syllable has no stress, “Wister” and “Wistar” are pronounced the same, so in reasoning one’s way back to a Latinate form, “wisteria” and “wistaria” make equal sense, assuming it’s the pronunciation that counts. (But I never saw or heard “wistaria” before.)
    There is a sort of interesting grammatical point raised in the passage from “that novel by Nares” quoted by Grumbly Stu: “… to the preventing any discovery of the truth.” IMO this is ungrammatical in current English, because “preventing” can’t be simultaneously a noun (so that it takes “the” preceding) and the gerund form of a verb (in which case it can take a following direct object). Nouns require some preposition before a following logical object. So either “to preventing any discovery of the truth” or “to the preventing of any discovery of the truth” would have been okay.

  57. I also noticed that. Although “to the preventing any discovery” is old-fashioned, I made a mental note to give it (and similar locutions) a whirl at the next opportunity when writing. I like the construction because there is one less “of” to deal with.
    “Of”-pile-ups are ugly: “the preventing of any discovery of the implications of the hidden agendas of the drafters of the initial versions of the Constitution”.

  58. In German that would be one word.

  59. Hat: I think for me it was buried the day / will the clematis / tendril and spray / kingfisher’s wing, all Sievers Type E half-lines, that caused me to induce my pronunciation.

  60. A very interesting case of face-or-vase illusion in poetry!

  61. narrowmargin says

    Isn’t it funny that you sometimes know exactly when or where or from whom you first heard/read a word?
    I came across “wistaria” in the first paragraph of Absalom, Absalom!

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