I must have been introduced to the Parable of the Tares in Sunday School (when I was a wee lad and had such experiences imposed on me); my vague memory jibes with Wikipedia’s summary: “The parable relates how servants eager to pull up weeds were warned that in so doing they would root out the wheat as well and were told to let both grow together until the harvest.” But that’s not actually what’s going on, as I learned from this Facebook post by Rebecca Stanton, a Russianist who lives in New Zealand and sings in a choir:

I’ve always wondered what the reference was for this window at St Mary of the Angels, Wellington, which is toward the back of the church on the Mary chapel side, right where the sopranos can stare at it. Who are these sleeping people? Who is the cartoonishly malicious “baddie” in the middle and what is he holding/throwing? Finally today I found out, when the Gospel reading centered on the parable it illustrates — commonly known as the Parable of the Tares (Mt. 13:24-43), though the translation used at SMotA rendered the latter word as “darnel,” leaving me absolutely none the wiser…..either way, it is apparently a translation of the Greek ζιζάνια, which “is thought to mean darnel (Lolium temulentum), a ryegrass which looks much like wheat in its early stages of growth.”* (Most modern translations render it as “weeds,” which though more immediately understandable to the non-botanists in the congregation, misses the nuance that the “weeds” resemble the actual crop, and the historical context that this sort of thing was apparently enough of a problem that Roman law explicitly forbade sowing darnel in someone else’s wheat field — making this parable a particularly plausible and topical one for its original audience.)

The point, anyway, is that the sleeping people are the farm workers who have just planted a field of wheat, and the mean baddie is sneaking into the field to spoil their work by sowing a whole shitload of darnel — which looks like wheat but is toxic, apparently — and will be impossible to weed out. What a bastard!

(Her footnote is to the Wikipedia article I linked.) What a bastard indeed, and thanks to that lively account, I’m unlikely to forget how the parable works. And of course I had to look up the unfamiliar word darnel ‘Any of several ryegrasses, especially Lolium temulentum’:

[Middle English, of Old North French origin; akin to French dialectal darnelle, from darne, dizzy, dazed (darnel being so called because L. temulentum, a common weed of wheat fields, is often rendered toxic by a fungal infection similar to ergot, and consumption of bread made from flour contaminated with toxic darnel causes dizziness and lethargy), of Germanic origin; akin to -daert in Middle Dutch verdaert, dazed, and -turni in Old High German biturni, dazed, both perhaps akin to Middle Dutch deren, and Old High German tarēn, tarōn, to harm, ultimately of unknown origin.]

Tare ‘Any of several vetches native to Europe; any of several weedy plants that grow in grain fields,’ however, has no etymology beyond “[Middle English.]”


  1. How might Rebecca Stanton’s text deny the wiki quote on “what’s going on”? (Me, having endured elsewhere an assertion that Sisyphus was the key to the version in Gospel of Thomas 57.)

  2. It’s not a matter of denying the basic fact, it’s a matter of context and more information. Weeding is a simple, obvious thing — I’ve done it myself countless times — and that common usage is deeply misleading here. This is not a matter of simply a field that happens to have some weeds in it, it’s about a very particular weed and a malicious and apparently illegal act, a much more powerful image.

  3. That particular wheat-similar-looking weed is fairly well attested. And ”enemy” is noted.
    So, to me, Rebecca Stanton’s text is welcome, but not news.

  4. I didn’t say it was a revelation to the entire world, just to me. And it’s possible I’m not the only one who didn’t know that.

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    Russian scripture equivalent плевел was equally nontransparent to me, even though I know some botany. Turned out it was ryegrass, indeed.

    Of course rye itself was a contaminant in wheat field before people figured out how to use it

  6. This made me think of the surname Darnell (specifically Canadian linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell, but there are many). WP says, “Darnell is a masculine given name and a surname. The surname refers to a group of people in medieval ages who grew a plant called Darnel, which had intoxicatory properties. [citation needed]” Huh??

  7. Ergot can grow on rye.
    (btw, thanks for this blog.)

  8. I’m emphatically not a gardener and had never heard of darnel; it actually took me a while to find out what the word actually was that the priest had read in church, because the first five or so translations I looked at all said “weeds.” I think the thing that prompted me to post — other than the ‘Eureka!’ feeling of finally understanding what that long-beheld stained-glass window was depicting! – was simply curiosity: “WHAT was that word he said?” Because if you only hear the text aloud, and you don’t know the word, it’s hard to hear, and should you be a nerd like me who Wants To Know, it’s also hard to find out for yourself, because when you crack open your scholarly edition of the NRSV to look it up….the word isn’t there!!

  9. Trond Engen says

    The Norwegian Bible uses ugress (Bm.)/ugras (Nyn.) “weeds” (lit. “ungrass”). There’s no Norw. Wikipedia article on Lolium temulentum, but the official species register Artsdatabanken knows it as svimling, which literally means “daze”.

    Tangent 1: I bet that temulens is the origin of Norw. tummelumsk “dizzy”, probably with a German intermediate.

    Tangent 2: Comparing versions of Matt. 13, I learn that Nynorsk has klunger in verse 7 where Bokmål has tornebusker. This klunger is descriptive of thorny shrubs in general, but it can also be used specifically for Steinnype (Rosa canina) “wild rose“.

  10. the official species register Artsdatabanken knows it as svimling, which literally means “daze”.

    And now I have a crush on the word svimling.

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    A svimling: one who excels at swims, whereas a qvisling is one who excels at quizzes.
    Also Steinnyp–does the final part mean something like herb (compare catnip) and is there any relation to neaps?

  12. ktschwarz says

    The OED records zizania or zizany used in English with reference to the Bible story, and occasionally figuratively for “a pernicious influence or unwanted element”:

    1612 With their Zizaniaes of faction, they make boot & havocke of Catholickes estates. T. James, Iesuits Downefall 8
    1789 There is zizanie between the D. of Portland, Fox, and Sheridan. T. Jefferson, Letter 22 January in Papers (1958) vol. XIV. 482

    Those uses are obsolete now (but still surviving in Modern Greek as well as Italian, Spanish, French, and Catalan, according to Wiktionary). Linnaeus repurposed Zizania as the genus name for wild rice, which is the only use today in English.

    The Greek word is (as previously mentioned) ultimately from a Sumerian word for wheat — “perhaps”, per OED; Wiktionary has no doubt and suggests an Aramaic intermediary.

  13. Trond Engen says

    Me: svimling, which literally means “daze”

    Sorry, that’s too simplistic. There are two ways to interpret it:

    1. As a verbal noun from svimle. A hard verb to translate, but perhaps “to dizzy” as in “dizzying”. It’s something your doctor might ask you about: Kjenner du svimling for øynene når du reiser deg? “Do you feel dizzying before your eyes when you rise?”

    2. As a personal epithet from the adj. svimmel “dizzy”, parallel to e.g. gamling “old person, geezer”, kjapping “fast mover or thinker”, smarting “intelligent person”.

    I first thought #1, which I simplified to “daze”, but now I think #2, in an extended or metonymic sense “the one bringing dizziness”

  14. Trond Engen says

    @PP: I haven’t thought of a relation between nype and neap before. Eng. neap is Norw. nepe, which is not regular. Scand. y may under some conditions correspond to Eng ea, but nype f. means specifically “rosebud”, so they’re hard to reconcile semantically.

  15. Trond Engen says

    … means specifically “rosehip”, so …

  16. @Trond. “As a verbal noun from svimle. A hard verb to translate, but perhaps “to dizzy” as in “dizzying”.

    You need not puzzle your wits to find an adequate English translation because English has the intransitive verb swim ‘have a floating or reeling appearance or sensation’ and the noun swim ‘temporary dizziness or unconsciousness (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/swim).

  17. Trond Engen says

    Ah, thanks! That was new to me.

    Norw. svime f. 1. “Temporary unconsciousness” 2. “Especially unorganized, unfocused and unattentive person”.

  18. … in Sunday School (when I was a wee lad and had such experiences imposed on me)

    My parents sent all six of us along to the nearest vaguely protestant Sunday school, and just like the Hatman we had such experiences imposed. My mother had been of a passively Christian persuasion in early life, but my father was openly agnostic and uninterested. The idea seems to have been to inculcate a generalised habit of orthodoxy and obedience.

    What I took from it all, and from attendance at church in adolescence, was invaluable. KJV-flavoured mythology was all the go – and hymns of the usual stolid majesty, to reinforce a sumptuous variant of our language (and a dull but often-enough stirring version of our music) that I would not otherwise have absorbed when impressionable.

    Eventually the child-philosopher in me resumed control, stripping away conventional faith, orthodoxy, and obedience. Hugely relieved when that happened; but I’m forever grateful for the digression. A common early life-course, I suspect.

  19. Cognate with dialectal English sweem~sweam, but not with swim or swoon. Who knew.

  20. In The Chronicles of Prydain, Eilonwy uses a lot of flowery metaphors for describing states of confusion and distress. However, her most common expression of the sort is that someone or something “makes my head swim”—which sounds like one of her nonce descriptions, but is actually a standard expression.

  21. @Hat And it’s possible I’m not the only one who didn’t know that.

    Yep, I didn’t know the business about being very similar to wheat and that attempting to pull out the tares/darnel would also dislodge the crop. So thank you for the post; and may the poo-pooers’ fields be plagued with tares.

    Like our host, I probably first heard this story at Sunday School — though remember it more dimly. I hadn’t heard ‘darnel’ before; and all I knew of ‘tares’ was they’re something biblical and a BAD THING.

    Roman law explicitly forbade sowing darnel in someone else’s wheat field

    Darnel terrorism was a thing? If you had a grudge against someone, weren’t there more effective ways of sabotaging their crops?

    St Mary of the Angels church in Wellington is a lovely example of many NZ Catholic churches “Gothic of French influence” interpreted in modern (early C20th) materials. We had a very fine cathedral in Christchurch (admired by George Bernard Shaw), wrecked by the earthquakes; there’s a similar one in Timaru I wandered round a few weeks ago. When I worked in Wellington, I used to go to the lunchtime concerts in St Mary’s; including the Gareth Farr percussion ensemble; and there was some Bach …

  22. @Noetica My parents sent all six of us along to the nearest vaguely protestant Sunday school, and just like the Hatman we had such experiences imposed.

    Same for me. Neither of my parents was particularly strongly/proselytising religious; it was the neighbours who ‘offered’ to take us kids to their church. I’m sure my parents were more than happy to have a few hours to themselves Sunday morning. The bribe was that dad would pick us up after the Service and we’d go for icecream.

    (I must have paid some sort of attention: I was on the Scripture knowledge Sunday School team, and scored 98% for some exam or other.)

  23. A common early life-course, I suspect.

    Yes, all that you say is true (mutatis mutandis) of me as well. And I, like AntC, was quite good at Scripture knowledge.

  24. Same here.

    I seem to remember “motes” and “beams”.

  25. no etymology beyond “[Middle English.]

    Middle English Dictionary does not add much other than a couple of Middle-X cognates.

  26. January First-of-May says

    Russian scripture equivalent плевел was equally nontransparent to me

    TIL that it’s supposed to be a particular plant. I always interpreted it as some archaic term for “weeds”.

    (Russian Wikipedia says that a close non-poisonous relative from the same genus is common in pastures and lawns… I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the plant, but I hadn’t realized that this is what it was called.)

  27. As ktschwarz says, cizaña is a term fairly known in its botanical/symbolic meaning by any Spaniard, and the expression sembrar cizaña (to sow darnel) quite common. You invariably know somebody who excels in the art of sowing around lies and discord.
    Now I remember that the Asterix comic La Zizanie, rendered in Spanish as La Cizaña, was published in English as The Roman Agent. A fine description of this kind of poisonous people.

  28. Brian Hillcoat says

    The official name in German for Lolium temulentum is Taumel-Lolch. ‘Taumeln’ means to stagger or to be dizzy. (Sorry, can’t do italics here.)

  29. English tare is usually connected with Dutch tarwe (now the normal word for ‘wheat’). See the following etymologies (in Dutch), for example: https://etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/tarwe

    Kroonen also relates these words in his dictionary, and suggests an original meaning ‘corn pest’.

  30. and scored 98% for some exam or other

    When I was about ten I earned a Certificate of Scriptural Proficiency (or something along those lines) from the Methodist church. It’s a qualification I have as yet had no chance to make use of, and time is running out.

    Alas, my Scriptural Proficiency didn’t extend to the Parable of the Tares. My first thought was ‘tare’ meaning the weight of an empty container, only because it’s one of those words that shows up in crosswords far more often than in casual conversation.

  31. David Marjanović says

    ‘Taumeln’ means to stagger or to be dizzy.

    No, just to stagger, or more generally to move in ways that show the object is in danger of losing its balance.

    Sorry, can’t do italics here.

    Of course you can; just write the actual HTML.


    automatically becomes



  32. @David L: The other sense of tare has been discussed previously, and again here (where the “vetch” meaning from Matthew also came up).

  33. There could an alternative Parable of the Tares involving an unscrupulous deli owner who bilked his customers, a fraction of a shekel at a time, by failing to subtract the weight of the food containers. The comeuppance would be that his life would be cut short by equivalent fractions of an hour, or something.

  34. John Cowan says

    Of course you can

    DM, I’m not sure if you are being naive or faux-naive[*], but I can’t is a standard idiom for I don’t know how to that does not involve losing face.

    [*] “I am not pretentious! I am faux-pretentious.”

  35. I’m pretty sure DM is never faux anything; he simply missed the idiomatic subtlety in his laudable eagerness to explain.

  36. John Cowan says

    I know. But when I thought up that (faux) quotation, I had to have something to hang it on, didn’t I.

  37. “Плевел” is the normal generic word for “weed” in Bulgarian. Not surprised it’s Church-y in Russian, that fits the pattern. “Плевня” is “Barn”

  38. The comeuppance would be that his life would be cut short by equivalent fractions of an hour, or something.
    Reminds me of the old joke about the lawyer at the Pearly Gates who asks why he had to die so young, being only 50 years old. St. Peter looks at his file and explains that based on his billed hours, he must be 200 years old.

  39. I’m a bit skeptical that Kroonen’s *terwōn- will get to the Middle English forms, though. Surely a feminine ō-stem *tarwō of the Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands is much more straightforward? It seems the e-reflexes in Dutch can be easily explained as dialect vowel developments, at least according to van Wijk, and an ō-stem could easily have by-forms both with and without w (Nsg *tarwō > NWGmc *tarwu > WGmc *taru; Dsg *tarwōi > WGmc *tarwē), in a way that an n-stem can’t. Of course, there could be something more complicated going on derivational, which might fit in with the fairly varied semantics Kroonen cites, but starting from an ō-stem still seems the most straightforward option to me.

  40. David Marjanović says

    I can’t is a standard idiom for I don’t know how to

    That’s exactly what I assumed, so I explained how to…? “Of course you can” was meant to underscore how easy it is.

  41. John Cowan says

    Ah, okay. It comes across as a flat contradiction: “I’m going to take you literally to show what an idiot you are.” I mean, that’s not what I thought, of course.

  42. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    I had no recognition of either tares or darnel, but the parable is very productive in Italian. As in Spanish, sowing discord is inevitably seminare zizzania. Moreover, separating the wheat from the chaff is separare il grano dal loglio. I cannot say I’d have recalled without checking that loglio and zizzania are the very same weed.

    I’m pretty sure the enduring Italian sayings are from the Gospel and not Roman law, but it’s true that malicious darnel-sowing shows up there too. I wouldn’t say that “Roman law explicitly forbade sowing darnel in someone else’s wheat field.” Rather, it is an example of tortious conduct that was enshrined in the Digest.

    Take my knowledge of Roman law with a huge pinch of salt, but the underlying point of law seems to be that not all torts were immediately actionable. Statutorily, the Lex Aquilia compelled the payment of damages “si quis alteri damnum faxit, quod usserit fregerit ruperit iniuria,” namely “if anyone harms someone else, and unlawfully burns, shatters, or breaks something.”

    Did I say “shatters or breaks?” You’ll see that no two sources translate “fregerit ruperit” identically. That’s the whole point. What counted as rumpere was never clarified by the dictionary, but rather by centuries of precedents. Dig. “Inquit lex ruperit. Rupisse verbum fere omnes veteres sic intellexerunt corruperit,” namely “The statute says breaks. This verb break almost all ancient authorities undestood as damage.”

    The case of malicious darnel-sowing comes up as problematic. Dig.

    Et ideo Celsus quaerit, si lolium aut avenam in segetem alienam inieceris, quo eam tu inquinares, non solum quod vi aut clam dominum posse agere vel, si locatus fundus sit, colonum, sed et in factum agendum, et si colonus eam exercuit, cavere eum debere amplius non agi, scilicet ne dominus amplius inquietet: nam alia quaedam species damni est ipsum quid corrumpere et mutare, ut lex aquilia locum habeat, alia nulla ipsius mutatione applicare aliud, cuius molesta separatio sit.

    Again don’t take my word for fine points of Roman law, but at least approximately:

    And thus Celsus considers whether, if you sowed tares or oats in another’s wheat field, which you thereby polluted, not only can the owner (or, if the property is leased, the tenant) sue under Quod vi aut clam, but also as an actio in factum (and if the tenant files it, he must be careful no further action is brought, namely that the owner does not motion further): for it is one kind of harm to damage and change something, so the Lex Aquilia applies, and another to cause no change to something itself, though its separation should be troublesome.

    This extension may have been doubtful for Celsus, but no longer for Ulpian. Dig. “Item si quis frumento harenam vel aliud quid immiscuit, ut difficilis separatio sit, quasi de corrupto agi poterit.” Namely: “Again if something mixes with wheat sand or something else, so that the separation is difficult, one can sue as if it had been damaged.”

    Surely both Celsus and Ulpian cannot be suspected of having been influenced by Matthew. Perhaps viceversa?

  43. FWIW, the Vulgate uses zizania (which is not attested in Classical Latin).

  44. Surely both Celsus and Ulpian cannot be suspected of having been influenced by Matthew. Perhaps viceversa?

    I don’t think it’s a matter of one having been influenced by the other; rather, Jesus was making use of an example of tortious conduct that was familiar to his hearers. I don’t think the precise legal issues are particularly relevant.

  45. Trond Engen says

    Giacomo P.: Moreover, separating the wheat from the chaff is separare il grano dal loglio.

    In Norwegian this is skille klinten fra hveten “separate the (corn)cockle from the wheat”. I hadn’t realized until now that this is from the same parable. Instead I always thought the base of the metaphor was winnowing, i.e., the process of separating the useless (chaff) from the useful parts of the grain, and I thought klint meant “chaff” and was related to kli “bran”.

    Tangent 1: I learn that the (corn)cockle is red-listed in Norway, and that attempts are being made to get it back in the fields even though it’s poisonous and will have to be, well, separated from the wheat.

    Tangent 2: Cockles and mussels are something else. But I’ll mention that Nyn. kveite is both “wheat” and “halibut”. There’s a bilingual double pun in there.

  46. attempts are being made to get it back in the fields even though it’s poisonous and will have to be, well, separated from the wheat.

    That seems completely nuts. What’s next, releasing the smallpox virus so it can spread to its former realms?

  47. Trond Engen says

    Yeah. But rereading I see that it’s not about modern cornfields (where it won’t be able to sustain a population anyway) but probably e.g. lands used to grow grass as winter fodder for animals. It’s the seeds that are poisonous, so maybe it’s just about avoiding harvesting in the seeding season.

  48. Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frühchristlichen Literatur, as edited by Kurt and Barbara Aland (6th edition, 1988), is cautious: zizanion is translated as “wahrsch[einlich] d. Lolch, e. lästiges Unkraut auf d. Getreidefeldern. […] Es handelt sich vermutl. um e. semitisches Wort”. I have never in my life heard or read the word Lolch before. (As a child I counted the NT parables as belonging to the boring and largely incomprehensible theological parts of the bible, which I simply never read. The mythological stories were the interesting stuff, and even then I knew they were on the same level as Graeco-Roman or Germanic mythology or the novels of Karl May: entertaining fiction. I knew my father saw Jesus as an early communist, and wasn’t interested in theology in the least.

  49. David Marjanović says

    Oh, nice! Didn’t know harena was attested.

    German goes with English, just the other way around: die Spreu vom Weizen trennen “separate the chaff from the wheat”. (I just looked it up; yes, it’s chaff.) I had no idea it was from the Bible (or anywhere in particular) and don’t think I’ve ever encountered the parable.

    I have never in my life heard or read the word Lolch before.

    Seconded. But I’m descended from generations of city slickers and apparently a dynasty of woodcutters, so I’m not likely to know it anyway.

  50. Should be zizanium or zizanion. The Vulgate reference is in the accusative.

  51. Brian Hillcoat says

    It’s ok DM, I’m not in the slightest offended.

  52. Italic achievement unlocked!

  53. Stu Clayton says

    @Brian Hillcoat : (Sorry, can’t do italics here.)

    I took that to mean you were on a computer at some location where the use of italics could get you into trouble. Just as does “doing research” on porn sites.

    In America currently, I get the impression from headlines, you risk grief for using the wrong words at work. In Huff Post recently:

    # Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) referred to non-white Americans serving in the U.S. military as “colored people” in a shocking moment on the House floor Thursday, prompting a sharp rebuke from the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. #

    In Germany, demagogues and city councils are now at each other’s throats over “*” in words as an antidote to grammatical gender. Soon it will be italics or CAPS that get you fired. Is there a font without either ?

  54. Stu Clayton says

    Hah, seems that Hebrew comes close to meeting both font requirements. Although Hebrew is not a font. Isn’t that curious !

  55. Trond Engen says

    Me: In Norwegian this is skille klinten fra hveten “separate the (corn)cockle from the wheat”. I hadn’t realized until now that this is from the same parable. Instead I always thought the base of the metaphor was winnowing, i.e., the process of separating the useless (chaff) from the useful parts of the grain, and I thought klint meant “chaff” and was related to kli “bran”.

    Another tangent. I also learned that the Norw. word for separating chaff from wheat is drøfting. I only knew it in its very common metaphorical sense “discussion, weighing of arguments”.

    Pretty much every school essay assignment ever given includes drøfting. — Drøft forfatterens bruk av virkemidler. “Discuss the author’s use of poetic/narrative techniques.” — Drøft argumentene som blir brukt av alle sider i debatten. “Discuss the arguments used by all sides in the debate.”

    Politically it’s often used of the level between informal talks and formal negotiations. Valgvinneren vil nå drøfte resultatet med lederne for alle partier på Stortinget. Først i neste uke kan vi vente faktiske forhandlinger med utvalgte partier om en felles regjeringsplattform. “The election winner will now have talks with all party leaders about the result. Real negotiations with selected parties about a common vision for government can’t be expected until next week.”

    In labor law it’s used for the employer’s obligation to consult with individual employees and/or their elected representatives before important decisions are made.

  56. The wheat and the chaff come from a different source, John the Baptist’s speech in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17.

  57. i have always hitherto conflated the chaff and the tare, and now i never will again!
    (but i will begin to play with the sheep:goats::wheat:tare analogy)

    and now i understand the second verse of one of my favorite shapenote tunes better: “the trumpet shall sound, the angels appear / to reap up* the earth, both the wheat and the tare.” [Harvest Hymn, Christian Harmony 9 / Shenandoah Harmony 161] from this we learn that angels are not affected by ergot.

    * properly “down”, but i am a prisoner of the oral tradition.

  58. Trond Engen says

    Yes, that’s more like it. All modern translations use agner for chaff. It seems like the two metaphors have been mixed up in popular use rather than the two processes having been conflated in translation. It also seems that the mix-up is common cross-linguistically, but which one ended up victorious as a popular idiom is variable.

  59. I would expect the “wheat from the chaff” version to be more popular overall, since it ties into a different gospel metaphor, that of Jesus as the new temple.

  60. kveite is both “wheat” and “halibut”. There’s a bilingual double pun in there.

    Kuite (whait for it …) OK, tell us. Just for the halibut.


    Oh, nice! Didn’t know harena was attested.

    But isn’t harena ubiquitous? Or do you mean in some particular sense?

  61. I’ve been strangely familiar with the word ‘darnel’ since I was a child, not from the bible but from Beatrix Potter’s story, The Tale of Mr Tod (a fox) and a badger, Tommy Brock: ‘a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up.’
    (There is a lot of digging up and burying: at Mr Tod’s house ‘there were many unpleasant things lying about that had much better have been buried; rabbit bones and skulls, and chickens’ legs and other horrors. It was a shocking place, and very dark.’)
    Tommy Brock kidnaps a family of baby rabbits in a sack. ‘There was not much difficulty in tracking him; he had left his footmark and gone slowly up the winding footpath through the wood. Here he had rooted up the moss and wood sorrel. There he had dug quite a deep hole for dog darnel; and had set a mole trap.’
    Potter cared about detail and her characters always behave in a way that’s appropriate to the animals they are, or to a human equivalent, or both, so you could expect this to be the sort of thing either a badger or a someone working on a lakeland farm c.1910 might naturally do. But why would you dig ‘quite a deep hole’ for dog darnel?

    This looks promising, but I can’t access it.

  62. The abstract certainly makes it sound interesting:

    This paper explores the complex interactions between people and the psychotoxic crop contaminant and wheat mimicker darnel (Lolium temulentum). Bringing together knowledge from literary, historical, religious, medical, and scientific sources, we trace the ways in which the plant’s cultural story has been informed by its cultivation (accidental and otherwise) by humans. Darnel is a man-made plant that evolved from a perennial progenitor and was subject to the same human-mediated selection pressures as the ancestral cereal species it infested. The toxicity of darnel grains is due to a cocktail of phytochemicals secreted by genetically complex endophytic fungi of the genus Epichloë, closely related to ergot (Claviceps purpurea). We show how darnel’s reputation as a poisonous cereal mimic that corrupts the food-chain made the plant a symbol of malign subversion, notably invoked in crises around religious heterodoxy and political subversion. We consider the ways in which literary allusions, from Shakespeare to Dickens, identified the corrupting influence of darnel with psychological and social breakdown. Darnel is classified as extinct in the United Kingdom and other developed countries with intensive agriculture, and its significance as a food chain contaminant and literary and religious symbol is vanishing from experience and understanding. This paper, then, is intended to serve as a textual seed bank to collect darnel’s cultural traces, and to demonstrate the ways in which the plant has annotated key debates and moments of crisis in human history.

  63. A preprint here.

  64. In all major traditional Korean translation of the Bible, the offending weed of the parable is rendered as 가라지 garaji, which the dictionary identifies as Setaria viridis var. major.

    I can’t find much information on this specific variety, but Setaria viridis is usually called 강아지풀 gang’aji-pul (“puppy grass”) in Korean. According to Wikipedia, common names for Setaria viridis in English include green foxtail, green bristlegrass, and wild foxtail millet, and it is indeed the wild antecedent of the crop foxtail millet (Setaria italica), called 조 jo in Korean.

    Apparently, the stems and leaves of garaji look like those of the foxtail millet, which is why it may have been chosen in the original translation.

    The Korean Revised Version (개역한글판 Gaeyeok Hangeulpan, 1952) and the New Korean Revised Version (개역개정판 Gaeyeok Gaejeongpan, 1998) (both based on a seminal 1938 translation) simply use the generic word 곡식 goksik meaning “crop” in the parable instead of specifying wheat.

    However, the Common Translation Bible (공동번역성서 Gongdong Beonyeok Seongseo) of 1977 and subsequent translations, including the Holy Bible (성경 Seonggyeong, 2005) which is the standard translation for Catholics, call the crop 밀 mil “wheat” while retaining garaji as the weed. I don’t know how similar garaji is in appearance to wheat.

    The Korean Living Bible (현대인의 성경 Hyeondaein-ui Seonggyeong, 1985) however names the weed as 독보리 dokbori, that is, Lolium temulentum, while identifying the crop as wheat. The name dokbori is certainly evocative, being a combination of Sino-Korean 독(毒) dok “poison” and 보리 bori “barley”. Barley and wheat look quite similar to my untrained eyes, so I assume that Lolium temulentum looks a lot like barley as well.

  65. Trond Engen says

    Ergot is meldrøye in Norwegian. The name means “flour filler” and suggests that it was seen as a useful addition to the crop. I guess the poisonous effect was so small at normal admixtures of ergot that it went unrecognized or at least unexplained.

    The Danish Migration Era bog body known as the Grauballe man had enough ergot hallucinogens in his body that he would probably have been in a coma when he was killed. This suggests that the effect was well known then, at least by specialists — or that it wasn’t understood and he was killed because he acted like he was possessed before falling in coma.

  66. Trond Engen says

    Noetica: OK, tell us. Just for the halibut.

    I regretted not writing “Construct your own bilingual double pun.” I think maybe it would work as a confusion skit where a fishmonger is trying to sell cockles to a farmer and the farmer is trying to sell wheat to the fishmonger. Both are suspicious of the other, and the farmer ends up with halibut and the fishmonger with cockles. Or maybe both are trying to sell kveite and both end up with shellfish poisoning because the cockles were fed on discarded crops. Or something.

  67. J.W. Brewer says

    A convenient explainer of the most salient distinction between chaff and tares/darnel, attr. to the 9th-century pundit Rabanus Maurus, Praeceptor Germaniae: “There is this difference between the chaff and the tares, that the chaff is produced of the same seed as the wheat, but the tares from one of another kind. The chaff therefore are those who enjoy the sacraments of the faith, but are not solid; the tares are those who in profession as well as in works are separated from the lot of the good.”

  68. ktschwarz says

    Somewhere, Nabokov is lecturing: “What did I tell you? You can’t call an elm a ‘shade tree’, you can’t translate cheryomuha as the imprecise ‘bird cherry’, and you certainly can’t translate zizania as the polysemous ‘tare’ — let alone ‘weeds’, which is a total abdication of the translator’s responsibility — or everyone will miss the point of the parable. ‘Darnel’ is the only possible translation, all others are wrongity wrong wrong.”

  69. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Meldrøjer. WP.da inverts the theory about Grauballemanden and thinks the whole village was stoned on ergot so they thought it was a good idea to put someone in the bog. Also Mr. Leary says lysergic acid’s good for you, and ergotamine is clearly much the same. It does have the regrettable side effect of constricting blood flow and making your arms fall off (gangrene), which I never heard told of blotter paper.

    (Also where would you buy blotter paper these days? The Fountain Pen Magazine downtown has been closed for nigh on twenty years).

  70. Trond Engen says

    WP.no does so too, but I thought that was too far out, man, especially since he’s not the only bog body around, and that begs for a common explanation. But maybe the common explanation is just murder and dumping the body in a bog.

    WP.no also says that there’s a correlation between documented witch processes and growth seasons with favorable conditions for ergot, suggesting that those showing the strongest symptoms of ergot poisoning were held responsible when other people and animals fell sick. That seems far out too, at least as a general explanation, but it could well have contributed in specific cases.

  71. David Marjanović says

    There was Tacitus saying cowards and sexual deviants were sunk in bogs… but most bog bodies are far older, and I can’t remember if they’re all in a plausibly Germanic context.

  72. For a moment I read that as the people put in the bog being too old to be cowards or sexual deviants and marveled at your faith in the power of age making men virtuous….

  73. @DM. “I can’t remember if they’re all in a plausibly Germanic context.”

    Yes, he speaks with reference to Germanic peoples. This is translated from his Germania:

    “In the assembly it is allowed to present accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments vary according to the quality of the crime. Traitors and deserters they hang upon trees. Cowards, and sluggards, and unnatural prostitutes they smother in mud and bogs under an heap of hurdles. Such diversity in their executions has this view, that in punishing of glaring iniquities, it behooves likewise to display them to sight; but effeminacy and pollution must be buried and concealed)” (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2995/2995-h/2995-h.htm).

  74. John Cowan says

    ‘Darnel’ is the only possible translation, all others are wrongity wrong wrong.”

    Bravo! Thread won. Indeed, I think you get an award of some kind for that pastiche. (But note the variant spelling wrongety.)

  75. January First-of-May says

    Instead I always thought the base of the metaphor was winnowing, i.e., the process of separating the useless (chaff) from the useful parts of the grain, and I thought klint meant “chaff”

    I ended up asking my mother (who studied much biology in the 90s) what she thought плевел was, and she went into a detailed description of what was clearly chaff.
    Unfortunately I couldn’t recall the actual Russian word for chaff, so I wasn’t able to tell it to her. (Google/Wikipedia says it’s мякина, which I knew from some proverbs and nowhere else.)

    She was quite surprised to find out that 1) it was a kind of weed, and 2) that particular word was in fact the official Russian common name of the corresponding plant genus.

  76. Ben Tolley says


    I think DM was talking about the context of the bodies, not of Tacitus’s account.

    A lot of bog bodies have been found in areas that were probably Germanic-speaking at the time, but there’s plenty from places that certainly weren’t. But I suppose no one likes cowards and sexual deviants. I doubt there are any recent polls, but there’s probably plenty of people willing to dump them in bogs today. The Sun would undoubtedly approve.

  77. January First-of-May : плевене is the noun that means separating wheat from the chaff in Bulgarian, and плевел is the generic word for an unwanted plant that grows along a plant you are cultivating. Chaff is плява. I had to call my mother also to remember the word плява.

  78. January First-of-May says

    [the Russian word for chaff is мякина, which I knew from some proverbs and nowhere else

    …and (in the proverb context) assumed it was a kind of bread, or at least something edible.

    Apparently мякина is related to мягкий “soft”.

  79. Yes, I’ve always confused it with мякиш ‘crumb, soft part of bread.’

  80. J1M, Russian WP says it consists of husks, English WP says it is husks.

    Maybe both are wrong, but these definitions imply that it is husks-as-fodder. (Weirdly, I do know English “chaff” though I hardly would be able to give a precise definition…)

    Like you I learned it in early age and assumed that it’s мякиш.

  81. David Marjanović says

    I think DM was talking about the context of the bodies, not of Tacitus’s account.

    Yes; thanks.

  82. nbmandel says

    (Excited to find another shapenote singer here, rozele, and one who sings from the CH and ShH no less!)

  83. ktschwarz says

    Michael: But why would you dig ‘quite a deep hole’ for dog darnel?

    Interesting question! This was asked on Stack Exchange, but the only response was a definition of darnel and a speculation that “dog” might mean an inferior kind, which doesn’t help — what’s an inferior kind of a weed? And no explanation of why it’s in a deep hole. Another children’s author had the same question and couldn’t answer it either.

    Too bad nobody asked this while Beatrix Potter was still alive. As previously remarked here, Potter didn’t constrain her vocabulary to a child’s level, but at least “paduasoy” and “lappet” in The Tailor of Gloucester can be looked up in a dictionary, unlike “dog darnel”. My guess is that maybe it was some hyper-local dialect usage, never recorded in dictionaries (I found nothing helpful in the English Dialect Dictionary), perhaps referring to some burrowing animal?

    Readers can just skip over a couple words, but translators have to make a decision; I wonder what they did with “dog darnel”? The only translation I could find online was this in Chinese, but it’s just 犬 (quǎn) ‘dog’ 毒麥 dúmài ‘darnel (poison+wheat)’, i.e., the translator had no damn idea.

  84. I found a Korean translation online by Gu Jaun (구자언) where “dog darnel” is simply rendered as 강아지풀 gang’aji-pul. As explained in my earlier comment, this is Setaria viridis, whose common names in English include green foxtail, green bristlegrass, and wild foxtail millet. Aside from also being part of the large family of plants known as grasses, it is not closely related to any of the ryegrasses called “darnel”.

    As in the choice of 가라지 garaji (Setaria viridis var. major) to translate the weed in the parable in early Korean versions of the Bible, it looks like the plant was replaced in the translation with a more familiar equivalent. In this case, gang’aji-pul means “puppy grass” in Korean, so it is a fitting rendering of “dog darnel” in some sense.

    By the way, 개- gae- is a prefix in Korean used in the name of some plants to mean “wild” or “inferior”. It is usually thought to derive from the word for dog, 개 gae. 개살구 gaesalgu is the fruit of the Prunus mandshurica or the Manchurian apricot, which is more sour and bitter than 살구 salgu “apricot”. It also seems that “dog” is used in the names of some plants in English, so it is not a stretch to think that “dog darnel” might have been a rare dialectal coinage that fell into disuse.

  85. It also seems that “dog” is used in the names of some plants in English,

    Indeed: Dog-rose/Rosa canina (English translated from Latin, Latin from Greek). “hooked prickles on the plant that have resemblance to a dog’s canines.”

    And a bunch of plant names collected top left here. ‘Dog-tooth’ also the name of that pattern in architecture/weaving.

  86. Doggone it! My post responding with doggy plant-names dogged by the spam-catcher. Could our host don his Dogstalker @Hat and collar it, please. Or we could recruit Dogberry the night constable to track it down, since it’s now kennel-time chez Hat. (I linked first to Dog-rose translated from Latin from Greek. But in purdah probably because I linked to a wp search for dog-aligned plant/flower names — good hits first page but then goes on and on: Dogbane page 4; Dogwood page 6.)

    … Ah, it’s appeared. Stand down that constable!

  87. Whew!

    *goes back to coffee, doughnuts, and Racing Form*

  88. ktschwarz,  Jongseong Park , AntC:

    Thank you!

    I looked optimistically for Dog Darnel in Geoffrey Grigson’s book ‘The Englishman’s Flora’, which was no help at all, but did have a slightly different bunch of dog-related plant names:

    Dog Banner, Dog-berry, Dog-berry Tree, Dog Binder, Dog Bobbins, Dog-breer, Dog-choops, Dog-clover, Dog Cocks, Dog Daisy, Dog Drake, Dog Eller, Dog Finkle, Dog Flower, Dogger Onion, Doggies, Dog Heather, Dog-hippens, Dog-hips, Dog-jobs, Dog-jumps, Dog Leke, Dogmint, Dog Oak, Dog Parsley, Dog Poison, Dog-posy, Dog Rose, Dogs-and-Cats, Dog’s Briar, Dog’s Carvi, Dog’s Cherries, Dog’s Dibble, Dog’s Ears, Dog’s Fennel, Dog’s Fingers, Dog’s Hippans, Dog’s Medicine, Dog’s Mercury, Dog’s Mouth, Dog’s Paise, Dog’s Pennies, Dog’s Siller, Dog’s Spear, Dog Stalk, Dog Standard, Dog Standers, Dog’s Tassel, Dog’s Thistle, Dog Stinkers, Dog Stinks, Dog’s Toe, Dog Stones, Dog-tansy, Dog-timber, Dog-tooth Berries, Dog-tree, Dog Violet, Dogwood.

  89. PlasticPaddy says

    dogdarn is a euphemism for goddamn in parts of the USA (and possibly in England?). Is a lady not allowed to have her little joke on the sort of person who will write
    Dear Editor,
    Whilst I know of quite a few native weeds and seen the odd badger in my many tramps through the fields and woods of my beloved ———shire, I have never before heard mention of the subterranean dog darnel or of the badger’s propensity for digging for it. A case of badger hunting dog? Perhaps one of your equally erudite readers can help…
    Mystified in Manchester

  90. John Cowan says

    ‘The Englishman’s Flora’

    Sounds like the answer to The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

    which was no help at all

    Like Raoul Mitgong.

  91. Jongseong, thanks; Wiktionary says that gang’aji-pul ‘puppy grass’ originated as an eggcorn of garaji, because it sounded almost like gang’aji ‘puppy’ and the grass looked like a brushy tail, as in “foxtail”. Is that right? I can see why a translator would think that was the answer, but still it’s not something found in a deep hole.

    There’s a PhD thesis on translations of Beatrix Potter into Romanian that comments on the difficulty of translating the vocabulary, both the agriculturally-specific words (darnel, pollard) and the sprinkling of high-register words (alacrity, apoplectic) characteristic of Potter’s style; the writer praises one translator’s “concern for accuracy … in the translation of flora names such as ‘wood sorrel’ or ‘dog darnel’ ” but frustratingly, doesn’t say what the Romanian translations were! Somebody has also read the translation of Mr. Tod out loud on Youtube, but again frustratingly, the text is not fully visible, and that sentence is cut off! I *think* the reader says sălbăție, which Wiktionary says is darnel, and I don’t hear anything translating “dog”; does anyone here understand spoken Romanian?

    Oh well, if we can’t make sense of it in English, the translators can hardly be expected to do any better.

  92. @nbmandel: likewise! (though i have to confess to mostly being a Sacred Harp singer, with a little stack of xeroxes from other things tucked in the back of my book)

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