Week twenty-three: BLEWITS (probability 13087), by David Sutton

A BLEWITS, says Chambers, is a mushroom of the Tricholoma genus, lilac-coloured when young. It is quite common in the beechwoods round my home, and is said to be excellent eating, though like all edible mushrooms it needs distinguishing from other species, identical in appearance, that will kill you rather painfully in a few hours.

It's a very attractive little fungus with its ghostly lilac stems, but I do wish the lexicographers and the people in the field would get their act together on what it's called. In Roger Phillips's beautifully illustrated tome 'Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe', published by Pan Books, it is a BLEWIT*, and when I recently went on a fungus foray with a local expert and pointed out a blewits to him, he patiently explained to me, as to one whose native language is clearly not English, that we spoke of one blewit but lots of blewits. Be that as it may, the only form valid for Scrabble is BLEWITS, with plural BLEWITSES.

There are several other interesting names for fungi. I particularly like PUCKFIST, which Chambers defines as 'a puffball fungus; a braggart (archaic); a niggardly person (obsolete)'. What links these meanings is obscure to me, but the etymology is given as 'apparently from PUCK and the root of Old English fisting, breaking of wind'. A PUCK in this sense is a mischievous goblin or sprite, as in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'; it has variants POUKE and POOKA. Does eating puffballs cause flatulence, I wonder, and is it this that leads on to the concept of a braggart or blowhard? Private replies only...

TUCKAHOE also sounds as if it might have an Old English derivation, but in fact it is a subterranean fungus of the southern United States, 'edible but tasteless' according to Chambers, and takes its name from the Algonquin 'ptuckweoo'. TUCKAHOE is also an old slang term for inhabitants of eastern Virginia; if I have any readers from eastern Virginia perhaps they could explain why.

Other evocative names for fungi include DEATHCUP, STINKHORN, WOOLLYFOOT and SHAGGYMANE, but the most beautiful has to be CHANTERELLE (or CHANTARELLE), a French diminutive of the Greek kantharos, cup, referring to its cotyloid shape. Too long to be useful, alas, but it does have an alternative name GIROLLE which is quite high probability.

By the way, WOOLLYFOOTS not WOOLLYFEET*. Just as FOALFOOTS, COLTSFOOTS and GOOSEFOOTS. But either CROWFOOTS or CROWFEET for the buttercup. Look, this is English. What do you expect — consistency?


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