Justin E. H. Smith (a professor of philosophy whom I quoted here on Nabokov) has a nice essay called “Mushrooms and Literature” that begins: “Surely the single largest category of folk names for mushrooms is the one having to do with evil and death, and with the beings who bode and bring these…” I bridled at that, thinking “In English, you mean,” but he eventually addresses my point, saying “[R. Gordon] Wasson and his Russian wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, argued in their monumental Mushrooms, Russia, and History of 1957 that the Indo-Europeans can be further subdivided into mycophilic and mycophobic cultures, with the Slavs standing as the clearest example of the former, and the Anglo-Saxons of the latter.” Russian does have some names “having to do with evil and death,” like мухомор [mukhomor], literally ‘fly-killer,’ for fly agaric, but most of them are descriptive, often relating to the trees or other botanical elements they are associated with: боровик Boletus edulus (also called белый гриб, ‘white mushroom’; these are the most highly prized by Russians): бор ‘pine forest’, подберёзовик Leccinum scabrum: берёза ‘birch,’ подосиновик Leccinum aurantiacum: осина ‘aspen,’ опёнок Armillaria mellea: пень ‘stump,’ моховик Xerocomus subtomentosus: мох ‘moss.’ There’s рыжик (Lactarius deliciosus) ‘little redhead’ and сыроежка (Russula) ‘eaten raw.’ Dahl, in his great dictionary, lists a great many mushroom names under Гриб ‘mushroom’ (the link goes to one of the many online versions of the second, bowdlerized, edition of his dictionary; unfortunately, nobody seems to have digitized the 1903-09 edition edited by Baudouin de Courtenay, which is by far the best but which was not reprinted in Soviet times because of its inclusion of “bad words”). Dahl has a brief but impassioned rant in his entry: “Ученые названия грибов несколько запутанны, а с ними и народные; школярство даже откинуло самое название гриб, а придумало переводные: пластинник и скважник; первому отвечает гриб, второму губа” [The scientific names of mushrooms are somewhat tangled/confused/complicated, as are the popular ones; scholasticism/pedantry has even rejected the very name grib (‘mushroom’) and has thought up transferred/translated ones: plastinnik and skvazhnik; the first means mushroom and the second tree fungus].

But I digress (as usual). Here’s a snippet from the essay itself:

Nabokov famously told the story of the Cornell student who beseeched him to divulge the secret of great writing. ‘Learn the names of plants’, Nabokov is said to have said. He surely did not mean the Linnean names (though those can help to add an extra flair of erudition); he meant the Russian-English-French names that turn the things into repositories of human lore and values and fears.

I’ve always found plants boring and have not managed to learn the names of more than a handful of them. I raced through Aristotle’s five books on animals, but could not bring myself to read his disciple Theophrastus’s Enquiry into Plants or On the Causes of Plants, which were supposed to complete the Aristotelian project of investigating the living world. Animals jump out at me, sometimes literally; they are phenomenally salient, as the cognitive scientists say, whereas plants just fade into the background. We might suppose it shows Nabokov’s great subtlety of mind that he picked them out for attention anyway (though we should follow up with the point that his greatest interest among living beings was for that most sensationally salient of creatures, the butterfly). Still, the advice is excellent, perhaps the best ever given in the history of literary instruction. Nabokov’s novels themselves (especially Ada) are vividly botanico-entomological, or, better, they are showcases for a sort of phyto-entomonymical mastery. Nabokov understood how to draw essences out of names; he understood that what makes literature live is precisely the theory of nomenclature, the philosophy of language, that had to be repudiated with the rise of modern science, one of the great achievements of which was the arbitrary naming scheme of the System of Nature of 1735.

(Via wood s lot [scroll down to June 06, 2011], and have I mentioned what a wonderful photographer Mark, who runs the site, is? That gorgeous shot at the top of today’s page, “St. Lawrence River,” is his, as is everything modestly labeled in light gray “photo – mw.” How does he find time for it all?)


  1. Surely the single largest category of folk names for mushrooms is the one having to do with evil and death, and with the beings who bode and bring these: Witch’s Hat, Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Poison Pie, Lead Poisoner, Corpse Finder, Witches’ Butter, Devil’s Urn, Goat’s Foot, Dead Man’s Fingers.
    Other names are identifications, by appeal to some other thing in nature or artifice, that the mushroom supposedly resembles (though for the most part does so only remotely): Chicken Mushroom, Fried-Chicken Mushroom, Rooting Cauliflower Mushroom, Black Jelly Roll, Moose Ears, Old Man of the Woods, Pig’s Ear Gomphus, Pretzel Slime, Scrambled Egg Slime, Blue Cheese Polypore.

  2. Dan Milton says

    How many of the names listed in the previous comment are folk names and how many are book names by authors who feel the need for an English name for every species?

  3. before anything else on mushrooms watch this wonderful discourse on Lenin as a mushroom. It came out in mid-80s, but is still widely remembered and referrd to. TV Presenter Sholokhov and musician Kuryokhin are the two interlocutors (in Russian).

  4. I can’t find the LH post comparing HG Wells story The Purple Pileus to Sorokin’s ‘Tobacco Pouch’?

  5. See “On Not Knowing The Names Of Trees”, by Raminagrobis (I, II, III, IV), a lengthy but worthwhile meditation on the issues.
    An English friend of mine once told me that not knowing the ash tree was his stock example of personal ignorance. I promptly sent him a picture of an ash tree and told him that as an Englishman he should be ashamed not to know Oak and Ash and Thorn. He, um, thanked me, er, suitably.

  6. From Raminagrobis IV: “mélèze is such a beautiful name, as is the English ‘larch’, but to my mind’s eye the two cannot possibly designate the same thing.” An interesting point, and I find I have the same reaction—how can they be the same tree? (The etymology of mélèze is unclear; some think it’s from Latin mel ‘honey,’ others that it’s pre-Latin.)

  7. Awesome! The first thing which came to my mind was Chateaubriand (Onegin XXVI:
    Он иногда читает Оле
    Нравоучительный роман,
    В котором автор знает боле
    Природу, чем Шатобриан,
    А между тем две, три страницы
    (Пустые бредни, небылицы,
    Опасные для сердца дев)
    Он пропускает, покраснев.)
    and sure enough, Chateaubriand dominates Raminagrobis’s Chapter IV! (More on Chateaubriand and Pushkin here). I always thought that Pushkin, in the cited passage, took a swipe at myself, because I couldn’t ever write even a few paragraphs of a story without mentioning some plant or mushroom by name. Even in the dead of winter, there are all these leafless branches and dead stalks to recognize and to marvel at.
    Human inability to recognize trees baffles me to the day. Years ago, I even spent several days building up a realspace quest for the Americans eager to tell apart the different kinds of “pines” (where the Sun doesn’t e’er shine!)

  8. J. W. Brewer says

    I met Gordon Wasson at a master’s tea (possibly a New-Haven-specific sort of setting?) when I was an undergraduate in the mid-’80’s. It was really quite a bizarre experience because it was like being at your WASPy grandparents and some nice respectable elderly WASPy neighbor of your grandmother stopping by and holding forth in detail about his personal experiences with hallucinogen consumption (with the same constraint about not wanting to ask questions in front of grandma that appeared *too* interested or *too* knowledgeable).

  9. I promptly sent him a picture of an ash tree

    So now he’s able to recognise different trees from a very long way away?

  10. Thanks to Sashura for the Ленин – гриб link. Brilliant. Don’t fathom how it had never come up on my radar before, since I’ve known about various other Kuryokhin absurdist hijinks for decades.

  11. it is, it’s from the heyday of Sholokhov’s programme in the 80s on channel 5 when Leningrad regional TV was brought to Moscow. Everybody stayed up late to watch and spent half of the next day discussing. Years later, in 96, when Kuryokhin died so suddenly people paying tribute to him recounted how baffled they were with the Lenin-Grib that starts as a popular science investigation and descends into complete absurdity Monty Python style with Sholokhov and Kuryokhin desperately trying to keep their faces straight. I wish someone could dub into English, but at least its there on YouTube.

  12. mycophilic and mycophobic cultures, with the Slavs standing as the clearest example of the former, and the Anglo-Saxons of the latter
    I have a Collins guide to indentifying edible mushrooms which, in the entry on Red Russula (Sickener – сыроежки), says ‘poisonous, but widely consumed in Eastern and Northern Europe’. In France, where pharmacists have a statutory obligation to identify (for purposes of edibility) mushrooms brought in by members of the public, I had serious arguments about mushrooms which they’d labelled ‘déconseillé’.
    I’ve seen claims that Russula and Rus – Russia are of the same origin, red-rusty-ginger. Is that plausible?

  13. Bathrobe says

    Are poisonous mushrooms common in Russia?

  14. oh yeah, fly agaris, death cap, the lot, dozens die every year through misidentification, but also I suspect because some non-poisonous mushrooms turn poisonous if chased with alcoholic drink.

  15. Re: poisonous, but widely consumed in Eastern and Northern Europe
    The real #1 edible mushroom of choice in many of Russia’s regions used to be not a porcini / borowik but the great груздь, long since hunted to extinction in most of Central Russia and hence nearly forgotten. As a kid in the 70s, I used to be treated to barrel-fermented грузди by a village granny in the remote North-East, they were unforgettable. But the real hoot is that the Latin name of this super-desirable species is … Lactarius nauseatus. Yeah, worse things happen if your culture’s got no clue how to prepare it right LOL.
    I noticed that mycology handbooks also pronounce Suillus spp. (slime jacks) edible “as a matter of principle” but yucky and totally undesirable 🙂 True, there is nothing particularly rare and bragging-worth about this ubiquitous genus, but hey, that’s exactly what’s good about it for the Russians, that you reliably find it like everywhere. We just opened our 2011 Suilli season three weeks ago … in Hawaii of all places!

  16. there is a proverb ‘called yourself a gruzd – jump in the basket’ meaning if you say you’re up for the job, you should take it, get on with it. By the 70s not only gruzdi became rare, but urban mushroom-pickers have lost the know-how of pickling them and often ignored the gruzd even when found. And the proverb got a new version ‘call yourself a gruzd – sod off!’ (1. назвался груздем – полезай в кузов; 2. назвался груздем – пошел на х–!)

  17. Love this line: “These are all just folk terms, and so, since the beginning of the 18th century anyway, are not the real names of anything.”

  18. BTW are the Russian words grib and gruzd’ cognate? The folk sayings Sashura just cited clearly use the two words interchangeably. And I was told that in some regions e.g. Bashkortostan) the villagers used to say “[poshli] po gruzdi” meaning “[let’s go] to pick edible mushrooms”

  19. without being pedantic:
    the Nabokov snippet refers to ‘plants’. May I be allowed to point out that ‘mushrooms’ (fungi) are not plants, but a group of living creatures (see Lenin example above) in their own right, a Kingdom, thus making the Nabokov reference, wonderful as it is, technically inapposite in the otherwise very good essay (just read it).

  20. For non-Russian-speakers curious about the Lenin-mushroom thing, Wikipedia has a brief account.

  21. Mockba,
    I think they are different. Grib looks like it’s from grebysh, grebeshok – comb (compare English combe as in wooded mountain ridge), and gruzd is probably from gruzdit/sya, gruditsya, gruzda, gruda – pile, heap, pile up, heap up, in ref to the mushroom growing in large clusters.
    Tatyana Tolstaya in Kys’ (Кысь) has magical post-nuclear war mutant chicken-like creatures caleed ‘gribyshy’. They can be poisonous, or can be v.good for you.
    Some mushrooms used as nicknames:
    Poganka – part of folk names of many inedible fungi and collective for all inedible ones. Figuratively means awful, nasty person.
    Smorchok (morels, morchella) – the slimy spring mushroom, fig. – someone small, insignificant, shabby, pitiful, or simply small.

  22. Thnx, Sashura, makes sense! Just for minor nitpicking:
    Morels couldn’t be called slimy, they have a nice soft skin. Their Russian name literally means “shriveled / wrinkled” and it sort of feels like the same word is used to characterize the wrinkled fruit body of a fungus, and an old shriveled person, kind of in parallel (rather then in a sequential way where at first a word would apply only to a mushroom, and only later to a person).
    Poganyj <= Latin Paganus (unworthy, degraded, originally referring to the pagan Mongol inviders and to their hated customs) is an even more clear case of a parallel application of the same concept to fungi and humans. In the latter construct it exists both in the feminine and masculine version (poganka / poganets), and only the feminine one has a “fungal equivalent”. So it’s far more likely that all these usages developed in parallel.
    BTW, are you in the UK somewhere? Planning my first ever visit there next month & wondering if I need local connections 🙂 !

  23. morels –
    of course, you are right! smorchok-smorshenny-morshina – wrinkled, shriveled, wrinkle.
    Are you sure about pogany – paganus? There is a stressed o in the noun pOgan’ and AH-ing the o-s, I think is the later, mid-Russian, Muscovite phonetical development. I know Vasmer disagrees, but I’d link it to gonyat’, pogonyat’, poganiva’t – to drive cattle or game, but also to drive away something, ergo something that needs to be driven away, got rid of, ergo pogan’, ergo pogany, poganka. No? Pagans were yazychniki. How old is paganus? Mb, Latin imported and adapted it from the East, prob via Slovenia, the meeting point of East and West.

  24. Mockba: no, I’m in Normandy, family just been to Londond, but I am not planning to go soon, sorry.

  25. John Emerson says

    Confucius also thought that it was important to learn the ancient names of the creatures of nature:
    Analects XVII:9:7. “From the Odes we become largely acquainted with the names of birds, beasts, and plants.”

  26. The “pagan connection” is common in most Slavic and Baltic languages, and it has already been there in Old Slavonic. In Latin it used to mean someone or something from the countryside, and only later (likely after IVc. AD) a polytheist (after the cities have become Christian, but the vestiges of the old beliefs still survived in the countryside).
    E.g. Russian Wiktionary
    Язычники (literally smth. like “speakers of languages”) is OTOH a Slavonic translation of Biblical goyim which the Greek texts translated as ethnoi ([other] peoples / languages), also implying pagans. A similar dualism exists in English too between “pagan” and “heathen”.

  27. PS: re: “New” folk names.
    I always felt kind of hobbled when I couldn’t find folk-style Russian names for the local wild edibles, and in the end I just made up some. Hope that these newly-invented folk names will, over time, get into dictionaries LOL.
    Some examples are наперстника = thimbleberry, or тетеревика = grouseberry.

  28. Are Finnish and Scandinavian mushroom names as phobic as generic W European names? They seem to share a mushroom and berry gathering culture with the Russians.

  29. Bathrobe says

    without being pedantic
    Apparently the fungi were only split off as a separate kingdom in 1969. When did Nabokov give his sage advice? If it was prior to 1969, then you are perhaps being proleptic in your comment.

  30. But, Nabokov said nothing about mushrooms — his advice was to learn “the names of plants”. Sashura (as I read his comment) (and apologies in advance Sashura if that should be “her comment” — I can never keep genders of blog commenters straight) is criticizing the application of this advice to mushrooms, which is occurring in the present day, well after fungi have been deemed a separate kingdom.

  31. Bathrobe says

    Well, I could say that he was referring back to the generality of Nabokov’s advice, which would have included the fungi as plants. But I’m not going to. Point conceded.

  32. And for god’s sage never refer to algae as a plant either. It’s safest not to refer to it as anything, because some algae are Protistae and some are Monerae.

  33. Which of god’s sages are we talking about now?

  34. thanks, Modesto, my point exactly, but it is a little technicality, the general point about learning the language of nature is v.good.
    I’m a he, Sashura (Sasha+Shura) is a diminutive for Alexander. Bunin has a Sashura character, Alexander Blok was called Sashura. In russophonia it goes for both, men and women.

  35. Can anyone put any detail around the Nabokov / Cornell student story? As far as I can see all web references derive from J.E.H. Smith’s two variants “Learn the names of trees” / “Learn the names of plants”. (And which was it?)
    Whichever it was, I feel Nabokov more likely meant “learn to tell the difference between things” than “discover the cultural treasures embodied in folk-names”. Why? Because the former conceivably makes original sense as writer’s advice, but the latter doesn’t. The latter, even if taken in a generously expansive sense, has something arbitrary about it – would pretty much boil down to “study cultural associations; do what Proust did with place-names”. Whereas the former would have a larger significance: first recognize what’s out there before you write about it. Something that remarkably distinguishes Nabokov’s writing – e.g. the lengthy taxonomy of different motels, or teenage girls’ clothing, in Lolita.

  36. Can anyone put any detail around the Nabokov / Cornell student story? As far as I can see all web references derive from J.E.H. Smith’s two variants “Learn the names of trees” / “Learn the names of plants”. (And which was it?)
    I’m guessing Smith is half-remembering, or summarizing, Nabokov’s rant in his Commentary to Eugene Onegin (page 9 of Part 2 [Vol. 3 of the 1975 ed.]):

    Among some fifty college students whom I once happened to ask (in planned illustration of the incredible ignorance concerning natural objects that characterizes young Americans of today) the name of the tree, an American elm, that they could see through the classroom windows, none was able to identify it: some hesitantly suggested it might be an oak, others were silent; one, a girl, said she guessed it was just a shade tree. The translator, when tackling botanical names in his author, should try to be more precise.

    This is a lead-in to his long discussion of the proper translation of the Russian words cheryomuha (which, “with its fluffy and dreamy syllables, admirably suits this beautiful tree, distinguished by its long racemes of flowers”—N. decides to invent the word “racemosa” to render it) and akatsiya (no, not “acacia,” you barbarian! he settles on “pea tree”).
    From page 17 of Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years: “As a young father, Nabokov had always tried to open Dmitri’s eyes to trees, flowers, animals. He would quiz his son on the names of things, reacting with mock fury when the boy confused terms.”

  37. A fun article (though alas! it is missing its illustrations): A short note on erotic mushroom imagery in old and modern postcards from Australian Mycologist 18.

  38. cheryomuha is of course quintessentially Nabokovo-Sirinian, as in these breathtaking closing lines of a verse:
    Россия. Звезды. Ночь расстрела
    И, весь в черемухе, овраг
    There is bird cherry around here, superficially similar, but sorely lacking the unforgettable aroma of the Russian tree (and the taste of its barely astringent sweet berries too). Hardly anybody would be poetic about the bird cherry. Heck, it’s exactly the season to be nostalgic about creekside cheryomuhas at night, with a nightingale soloing in every tree … why did you have to bring it up, Language?

  39. Прошу извинения!

  40. The Modesto Kid, the PDF on the journal’s own web site has them.

  41. Thanks, MMcM!

  42. Darien: Surely the single largest category of folk names for mushrooms is the one having to do with evil and death, and with the beings who bode and bring these: Witch’s Hat, Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Poison Pie, Lead Poisoner, Corpse Finder, Witches’ Butter, Devil’s Urn, Goat’s Foot
    Why on earth are you including goats in your list? Are you mad? Goats have lovely little hooves (yes they’re hooves, not “feet”). I’m going to call a toadstool after you. Darien-The-Axe-Murderer’s Sexually Transmitted Disease, something like that.

  43. Good point, AJP.
    And when it comes to witches are we sure that we’re talking about Satan-Worshippers’ Butter, as opposed to Wise Women’s Butter?

  44. Oh yeah? How come these people talk about Foot Problems in goats? (Goats seem to have sensitive feet)

  45. It was Catanea who drew my attention to this unfairness.
    I suppose “feet” is ok, there’s coltsfoot after all, now I come to think of it. The problem for goats is their toenails. In normal circumstances they would be worn away on stoney mountainsides; if they live elsewhere, you have to cut their hooves every 4 weeks or so. It’s a bit like horses (but cheaper).

  46. Сатанинский (Boletus satanus) isn’t a folk name – rather, it’s a translation from Latin. The lack of a folk name isn’t surprising at all since it just doesn’t grow in the Russian heartland. Besides, since Russian edible mushroom lore is, understandably, based on pos-id (“know what you pick”), there is a relative shortage of folk-names for the inedible ones. The species which don’t deserve to be picked don’t really deserve to be known and recognized by their own names. At most, they may be called called look-alike impostors of the “real” choice mushroom.

  47. John Cowan says

    Boletus edulus

    Edulis is a third-declension (i-stem) adjective.

    Dutch elm disease reached the U.S. in 1930, whereas Nabokov didn’t start teaching at Cornell until 1948. If he actually saw an American elm out the window, it was moribund or dead. (The good news is that blight-resistant strains of Ulmus americanus were created in the 1990s and are now available commercially.)

  48. ktschwarz says

    Yes JC, the spelling of Boletus edulis in the OP should be corrected.

    This species has mostly been called porcini in English since the mushroom popularity wave of the 1980s, but it does have a native English name, penny bun, which for once isn’t about evil or death! Unfortunately though, this name doesn’t seem to have deep roots in English folk tradition. It wasn’t well-known enough to get mentioned in the linked blog post about Nabokov, nor in the first edition OED, though they did have the compound “penny bun” in the literal sense of a bread roll costing a penny; the mushroom sense wasn’t entered in the OED until the full revision of “penny” in the Third Edition, and even then with citations no earlier than 1951. I tried to antedate that, and failed, finding only a conventional comparison (“about the size and colour of a penny bun”) rather than use as a name before 1951. And this comparison was introduced apparently by English botanist Mordecai Cooke, whose book British edible fungi : how to distinguish and how to cook them (1891) urged the British, hey, they love this one on the continent, it grows here too, why shouldn’t we eat it? There are present-day foraging enthusiasts who use the name “penny bun” (e.g. Wild Food UK), but it’s probably not much found in stores or restaurants or cookbooks; one commenter at Separated by a Common Language’s big list of vegetables remarked, “Quite a few books cite the English name penny bun mushroom, but I’ve never heard this or seen it in cookery writings.”

    Japanese is another language where mushrooms can be named after their associated trees, as discussed under PORTOBELLO: shiitake, enokitake, matsutake.

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