Bill Long 5/13/06
Beginning with Pediculous
It's a little ridiculous that I am spending so much time on pediculous, but I need to get all my words straight before I go on. We saw last time that the Latin pediculus could mean either a footstalk (plan) or lice. The English word derived from the latter meaning is pedicle (louse), which is not in the Collegiate, but is attested the OED even though the most recent attestation of this usage is 1425! All dictionaries also have the word pediculosis, which means infested with lice. Such infestation can also be called phthiriasis.
I learned further that the Linnean name for lice is Pediculus, which is the leading genus of the Pediculidae. But lice can be broken down into two, or even three, categories. The head louse is Pediculus capiti, while the body louse is officially called the Pediculus vestimenti, because it lodges in the clothing. A third louse, called the "crab louse" is now placed with a different genus, the Phthirius. It is officially known as the phthirus pubis and, with a name like that, predictably inhabits the "nether" regions of the body, as the Victorians were wont to call it.
A Primer on Head Lice
The most common infestations are these critters are of head lice on children. We all know the stories. Kids go to school, and they "catch lice" from one of their neighbors. I think there is a stigma attached in our culture to kids who get head lice or body lice--that their parents don't keep them clean, that they are slovenly or lazy, or something like that. Principals in wealthy suburban schools have been known to deny that there is any lice around their schools when the evidence of scratching young 'uns belies them. But, as ample information attests, the louse, like God's grace, is no respecter of rich or poor, and it infests about 10 million kids annually in the US. Since this is a vocabulary page and not a medical page, I will only mention further that the eggs of lice are called nits (and hundreds of them may be present where there are lice), that the most effective treatment for Pediculus capiti is pyrethrum (the Collegiate actually has this word--"an insecticide made from the dried heads of any of several Old World chrysanthemums"). A new product called Nix, which contains permethrin (a synthetic pyrethroid invented in 1976) is also popular. Together these can be called pediculicides--things that kill lice--not in the Collegiate).
With all this attention on lice, I think we deserve a picture of one.
This photo, fuzzy as it is, is the best shot I could find on the Net. I don't know if this is a "his and hers" pair, but notice the distinctive features of an abdomen larger than the thorax, and the head "conical" and contracted at the base. I also found one picture online of a louse emerging from a nit (I doubt if the picture will ever be as famous at Botticelli's Birth of Venus from the foam of the sea), but I decided against showing it, lest we all recoil in further horror.
Figurative Uses of the Word Pediculous
But we need not confine our understanding of the term to the actual creatures which make you itch. As early as 1602 we have this sentence: "Like a lowsie Pediculous vermin th'ast but one suite to thy backe." But an even clearer example appeared in 1846: "Your pediculous friars and parti-coloured bald-coot priests." This is a particularly vivid picture because one could easily imagine medieval and early modern monks suffering from lice infestations because of their flowing (and ill-washed) garments. You never read about lice in connection with monks, do you? You just think of how spiritual they are. Then from 1996 we have the following poetic language: "Mucky Preece lives in a pigsty beside the derelict L. Bar, tetrous, pediculous, skint, swilling rough cider and Blue." If you really love words, you will slowly take apart that sentence...but I am not going to do so here.
One other example of its usage, this time in a medical context, will conclude this essay. From a 1772 book on treatments for venereal disease: "In pediculous aposthumes I have seen that vermin follow the incision lancet in large clusters." I gave you this sentence because I have to pause on aposthumes. It is not attested currently in that spelling, being found in the Century as apostem, and and OED as apostem, aposteme, aposthume, apostume (being a speller has to make you a relativist). Oh, what is an apostem, actually? It is: "A gathering of purulent matter in any part of the body; a large deep-seated absess."
I probably could go on forever, but I will end with that word "abscess." It is derived from the Latin word abscedere (to go away; the verb abscede, meaning "to move away" or "lose contact" is even once attested in our language--who will resurrect it? "I must abscede from you now," the butler said with a stiff bow.), and apostem is simply the Greek form of abscendere, for it means to send away.
You know what? I still have some things to say, however briefly, on louses, and how we move from the little vermin called a louse to the word "lousy," which all of us use from time to time. Join me in the next essay for that.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long