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This item is taken from PN Review 28, Volume 9 Number 2, November - December 1982.

Sir: George Steiner's fascinating essay on the Logocrats (PNR 27) is marred by a lapse of memory or a misprint. God's self- definition at the Burning Bush, one of the crucial moments in -I borrow Kafka's phrase-'the world history of the soul', is best translated, as in the Authorised Version (Exodus 3:14), by the phrase 'I am that I am' and not, as in PNR, by 'I am what I am.' The meaning is radically deepened and the point about Heidegger is strengthened.


Sir: I enjoyed Christopher Middleton's musing (PNR 26) upon Louise Moillon's Apricots. Having been since a visit to Damascus a devotee of the species, I was moved to collate a few observations. John Webster's Aragonian brothers employ 'the only court gall', Bosola, as intelligencer against their sister, in The Duchess of Malfi. Bosola noted how she 'waxed fat in the flank' but concealed her girth beneath a loose-bodied gown and a farthingale. Frustrated that he could not raise a whirlwind to strike off her garments and reveal her state, which he guessed to be that of pregnancy, not over-indulgence, he procured 'apricocks'. These he trusted as physiological litmus to discover a 'young springal cutting a caper in her belly'. 'Vulturous eating of the apricocks' by the Duchess, followed by sickness, he construed as 'signs of breeding'. He was rewarded by a birth, but it was rumoured that he had poisoned her. This play, written around 1612, contains an alternative spelling supporting Middleton's hypothesis regarding the significance of the final syllable of apricot.

Prunus kernels contain the bitter amygdalin, which yields hydrogen cyanide, but the concentration is not toxic. Indeed, cherry stones were included in seventeenth-century comfit boxes for their analgesic properties, particularly at parturition, as in the Cherry Tree Carol: 'Let him pluck cherries who got you now with child.' Webster's fruit is offered by the 'only court gall' to the gravid Duchess: an evil man brings a gift of sweet fruit that contains a latently acerbic compound, which has a multiple function. HCN is poisonous, but the ameliorative apricot kernel is currently being researched by cancer specialists.

Prunus armeniaca, the apricot, is a misnomer as it originates not in Armenia, but China, reputedly through the gastronomic offices of Alexander the Great. As he only campaigned to India, he cannot be wholly responsible. Botanical morphology classifies the apricot as a drupe (Greek: overripe); blatant sexuality, evocative of the gardener's pendulous fruit in Richard II (1595): 'Go bind thou up yon dangling apricocks'. The leaves are heart- shaped and are affectionately held erect on the twigs.

As a popular dessert fruit, the apricot, which Mrs Beeton arranged pyramidally, is widely used for jams, flans, pies and brandy, also performing a surrogate function when almonds are not available. Containing Vitamin A, suitable for moderating night-blindness among Don Juans, they are ideal for stuffing hams.

Magical in spring, the orchards beside the Barada River at Damascus have an Elysian quality. It is no surprise that the Arab word for garden, jinena, is the same as that for paradise. Renowned since ancient times for their apricots, the orchard lands known as al Ghuta surge with blossom around the city and provide, eventually, the third munificence of the species: mellow timber for fashioning into pestles and mortars.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom, in the head of an ass, is entertained by Titania. She exhorts her fairies to 'Feed him with apricocks and dewberries'. Here, the proximity to the fig anticipates the royal lust in the words that follow: 'To have my love to bed and to arise'. Middleton suggests that Rabellaisians might find that apricot 'verges toward a word now lost, cotal, meaning penis'. The spelling 'apricock', appearing only forty years prior to Louise Moillon's painting of the 'seductively edible apricots', supports his hypothesis.

Derivations of the word apricot flow from the Arabic al Barquq, via the Spanish albarcoque to the early English abrecock. Some etymologies include praikokion (Greek) and praecox (Latin), precocious. Apricot, earliest Syrian blossom, is celebrated in my favourite expression: bokra fil mish mish ('once in an apricot flowering') which is used like our 'once in a blue moon'; though the blossom is not especially rare or ephemeral. However, what puzzles me is that in Egypt I bought plums using the word burquq and apricots I knew as mish mish. Is there an error in my powers of recall, or do the Cairenes, like the Esquimaux with their many words for the different varieties of snow, have a greater diversification of vocabulary to encompass the available species of edible prunus, barquq being a single Classical Arabic panchreston?
Wymondham College, Norfolk

This item is taken from PN Review 28, Volume 9 Number 2, November - December 1982.

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