Wednesday words: yew

Yew wood is so good at making bows that the genus name is taxus – ‘probably borrowed, via Greek, from Taxša, the Scythian word for yew (and bow)’ and not related to income tax (Latin, to assess) or taxonomy (Greek, an arrangement). It is, however, related to ‘toxic’ because the Greeks used poisoned arrows, and a toxikon pharmakon was a drug for use on arrows.

I already knew toxon was related to archery, because a toxophilite is an archer or devotee of archery.

Shorter words must be harder to follow back through the languages than longer words: look at and think how old a word must be to bag the sound ‘iw’ or ‘eow’. Like short domain names, or short twitter handles, it must mean the thing needed describing very early.

The red part around the yew seed is the only part of the tree that isn’t toxic. And it’s not a berry, it’s an aril. Lychees and ackee are arils, too. The clear red stuff cushioning pomegranate seeds inside a pomegranate fruit? A mass of arils. The spice mace is made from the aril of the seed that makes the spice nutmeg. They’re both toxic, in the sense that they contain substances that our bodies process into mind-altering drugs.

I think it’s funny which words catch on, too. Think how many things we call ‘fruit’ or ‘berry’ that aren’t fruit or berries, just because we like saying them, and then perfectly nice words like mesocarp and aril gather dust.