Bill Long 6/05/06
Gleanings from The Century
When the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia appeared in its final edition (1911), it was without question the most ambitious such project in the history of the English language. Containing more than 500,000 entries, many of them with cuts or diagrams, this twelve-volume treasure has largely been forgotten by those who are neologistically-inclined. But it repays close study, not only for learning words and concepts that are not covered in more "modern" dictionaries but also to understand the "shape" of the world, so to speak, in 1911. I decided to do some work in the Century on the concept of symbiosis. Here is what I found.
This was before the time that symbiosis became the inclusive category for all joint living arrangements between animals or plants. So, in 1911, symbiosis could be defined as "Union for life of certain organisms, each of which is necessary to the other...differing in the degree and nature of the connection from inquilinity and parasitism, as in the case of the fungus and alga which together make up the so-called lichen, or of the fungus Mycorrhiza and various Cupuliferae." I am not going to explore fungi here, but I was fascinated by the "continuum" the dictionary set up from parasitism through inquilinity to symbiosis. Modern dictionaries have dropped out the word "inquilinity," but I wanted to examine what the Century had to say about it.
The word inquiline derives from the Latin inquilinus, which is an inhabitant of a place which is not its own; a lodger. More specifically, the Century has it that it is "an animal that lives in an abode properly belonging to another, either at its expense, as certain insects that live in galls made by the true gall-insects, or merely as a cotenant, as a pea-crab which lives in an oyster-shell, or a sea-anemone growing on a crab's back; a commensal. See cut under cancrisocial."
The Nature of the Century's Definition
Look what the Century has done in its definition. It has given us a contiuum, which I would almost call a moral contiuum, from stolen life to shared life, with inquiline being the vast intermediate term. But you get the impression that the terminology is still plastic enough that it is shaped by the examples from life which inform it. Three examples are given--gall insects, pea crabs and sea anemones. Doesn't that just make you want to go study the life of each of these, in order to discover precisely how each is related to the thing with which it has a commensal relationship? Concepts have to be sharpened by actual observation; so let's observe for a moment.
How do we observe these? I am not going to look at gall wasps (recall, it was the study of gall-wasps that got Dr. Kinsey started, before he launched into the more widely shared interest of sex and sex practices), but I will follow up on the Century's encouragement to look at cancrisocial.
On Crabs and Anemones
Fortunately, the Century gave a picture of one of the three examples it cited of commensal relationships. It defines cancrisocial, a term absent from the OED, as "Social with crabs [an interesting concept--my comment]; associated with a crab in vital economy: applied to sea-anemones and other animals which grown on the shell of a crab.." Then, in a wonderful statement, put in smaller print, the Century has: "In some cases the association seems to be not merely fortuitous, but to involve some community of vital interest." Indeed, this is becoming perilously close to symbiosis, isn't it? But there is a nice diagram there, of an anemone bobbing on the surface of the water but firmly fixed on a whelk inhabited by a hermit crab.
From Crabs to Humans
But these pictures from nature now draw our attention right back to human existence. People live with each other in many ways, and the continuum of parasite through inquiline to symbiont might be the most helpful way to characterize our intimate relationships (we also, of course, have the word "autonomous," but since this word suggests no relationship, I will not pursue it further). Perhaps it would be accurate to say that we long for symbiosis, for exchanged life, for the life which draws on the other and gives to the other so that each needs the other in order to survive to the fullest. Well, maybe that is a bit too scary for some people, and then we need to retreat a little, to the safer shores of inquilinity. In such relationships, like the anemone to the crab (hm..getting too personal for comfort?), one clings to the other and seems to benefit from the clinging, but there may just be mutual "hanging out" without a lot of emphasis on gains and losses. Indeed, at times the inquiline relationship may seem to be a net gain to one member and a loss, or neutral, to the other. I think this is the way that most relationships are lived.
Finally, there is a parasitic relationship, where one sucks the life out of the other, clinging and fastening to the other and being nourished by the other but giving nothing in return other than the sharp marks that break the surface so that vital fluids can be extracted from the host. Many women, according to their own stories, stay in these kind of relationships far longer than they should, and many men know how to play upon women's emotions and needs so as to be a parasite on her. But, maybe that should be a national bestseller..."Why Women Want Parasites." Or something like that.
I find more compatible to my tastes a "continuum description" of intimate relationships than the logically exhaustive description given in the Wikipedia. One of the reasons I like the continuum is that it forces you back to look at nature, to see how nature conceives of and configures intimate relationships. Another reason is that it provides us with a vocabulary that is otherwise lost, a rich and meaningful vocabulary at that. For example, once we get into cancrisocial, we can wander through a great number of similiar and instructive terms, such as cancriform, cancrivorous, cancrizans [going or moving backwards, with also a musical meaning] which enrich our life and broaden our understanding.
And then, when we are in a dictionary like the Century, our eyes can't help but wander. After studying the word symbiosis, my eye fell on the next word after it: symblepharon. What does that mean? Well, "adhesion of the eyelid to the eyeball." Yikes. See what learning will do for you?
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long