Word of the Week (175): TABASHIR (probability 15810), by David Sutton

TABASHIR (or TABASHEER) is a siliceous substance sometimes found in crude form in hollows of bamboos, used in Eastern medicine especially for relieving joint pain and conditioning the hair and nails. It's one of those words that bear witness to the human determination to find a use for pretty well everything in the natural world, though what bright spark first found this stuff and decided 'wow, I bet that's going to be good for my arthritis' I have no idea.

Similar pioneers must have first discovered the uses of the acacia extract CATECHU (also known as KUTCH) as a food additive, astringent, tannin and dye. And realised that KAMALA, KAMELA or KAMILA, the red dusty hairs of a certain East Indian tree, could be useful for dyeing silk, and that GAMBIA, GAMBIER or GAMBIR, the inspissated juice of a Malaccan plant, could be used for tanning.

I suppose the potentially useful rubberlike properties of the resinous latex known as JELUTONG (also called PONTIANAC or PONTIANAK) were more obvious. But spare a thought for the early discoverers of poisons, at least some of whom must have made their discoveries the hard way. R.I.P. the first experimenters with ANTIAR or ANTIARIN, the poisonous latex of the UPAS tree, with CONIA, CONIN, CONINE, CONIINE or CONICINE, the liquid, highly poisonous alkaloid found in hemlock, and with URUSHIOL, the liquid present in poison ivy.

Finally let's take a look at GOSSYPOL, a toxic principle found in cottonseeds. This last is produced by the cotton plant to slow down the reproductive rate of insects that feed on the cotton bolls, and in the 1950s scientists traced a particularly low birth rate in a certain part of China to the use of crude cottonseed oil in cooking: it was causing very low sperm counts in men and amenorrhoea in women. There was a flurry of interest in spreading the use of gossypol as a natural contraceptive, but because of certain side effects the authorities wimped out. I mean, come on, can they be worse than side effects of having children...?


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