Asperging words

Here’s a verb I don’t remember encountering before. It crops up near the end of this passage in Seamus Deane’s novel Reading in the Dark (1996), where the author describes a dramatic childhood winter in Northern Ireland:

Paperback book cover of Vintage edition features a photo, black and white but tinted pink, of two schoolboys in uniform. One boy looks melancholy; the other smiles cheerfully at the camera. Below the author's name and book title is a line from the publisher about the book winning the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Irish Literature Prize 1997.The Germans came only once, made a bombing run on the docks where the American ships were lined up in threes and fours, missed, and never came again. The sirens had given several false alarms before, but this time the throb of the approaching planes seemed to make them more frenetic. We woke to their wild moanings, were carried to safety under the stairs and cradled sleepily between our parents, lightly asperged by the bright drops of cold Lourdes water that my mother would every so often sprinkle on us. I remember the silence when the droning stopped and then the long lamentation of each plane’s dive.

The use of sprinkle in the same line echoes the definitions of asperge in dictionaries that define it: M-W: ‘to sprinkle especially with holy water’; Collins: ‘to shower or scatter with a liquid, esp holy water’; Wiktionary: ‘to sprinkle’; OED: ‘To sprinkle, besprinkle’ [more on that be- suffix here].

Asperge comes from French asperger, from Latin aspergĕre, formed by adding a prefix to spargĕre ‘to sprinkle’. Two of the OED’s three citations have religious connotation, referring to people asperging themselves with holy water or being so asperged by a priest.

But its earliest citation, from The Breuiary of Helthe (1547), centres on cooking: ‘A Cockrel or a Pullet . . . rosted and with butter & veneger asperged.’ Asperge, as it happens, is also French for asparagus – a word with a complicated history and which is sometimes reanalysed as ‘sparrow grass’ through folk etymology.

Asperge is not a common word in English. It has scant currency in most of the large language corpora that I checked. Its sole appearance in the Corpus of Historical American English is in the phrase ‘Tear-ducts asperging’ in a poem by, coincidentally, another Seamus from Northern Ireland: Heaney.

I was struck by how many occurrences in Google Books (where asperge is more prevalent) were in descriptions of, or guides to, witchcraft or magick. Most examples in the 14-billion-word iWeb corpus are from witchcraft websites; one is from a Druid site. But of course this makes sense: asperging is often a ritual act, whether it’s in religious, culinary, or other ceremonial contexts.

If you’ve noticed the similarity with aspersing, or indeed casting aspersions, you’re on the right track. Asperse is a more familiar verb for sprinkling or spattering, and though aspersions are now usually figurative, they were physical/theological first and can refer to the act of sprinkling or the substance sprinkled – often holy water again. Sparse and disperse are also related to asperge.

Other, closer relatives are more niche. Collins lists the nouns asperge and asperger, ‘an implement used for scattering holy water’, while the OED includes the nouns asperge (labelled obsolete) and asperges ‘a sprinkling of holy water’. An aspergillum is a brush or container used to sprinkle holy water; the truncated plural aspergills appears at the end of one of those long lists Joyce put in Ulysses:

And all came with nimbi and aureoles and gloriae, bearing palms and harps and swords and olive crowns, in robes whereon were woven the blessed symbols of their efficacies, inkhorns, arrows, loaves, cruses, fetters, axes, trees, bridges, babes in a bathtub, shells, wallets, shears, keys, dragons, lilies, buckshot, beards, hogs, lamps, bellows, beehives, soupladles, stars, snakes, anvils, boxes of vaseline, bells, crutches, forceps, stags’ horns, watertight boots, hawks, millstones, eyes on a dish, wax candles, aspergills, unicorns.

Aspergillus is a genus of fungi, some of which are medically significant: either producing antibiotics or causing aspergillosis, an infection caused by inhalation of the fungal spores. The fungus was named for its shape, which resembles the church’s aspergillum:

Microscopy image of Aspergillus fumigatus, showing a dozen or so 'heads' of the fungal mould, each at the end of a long, thin stalk. The mould is stained blue, in a pale pink medium.

Aspergillus fumigatus

Finely detailed illustration of aspergillum from Die Gartenlaube (1880). The ornate aspergillum lies horizontally across a round basket with a curved handle. The basket has religious scenes etched into it. The aspergillum has patterns along its handle and on its head, which also has many small protruberances and a pointed tip.


[images sourced from Wikimedia Commons]

Finally, Asperger’s or Asperger Syndrome is named after Hans Asperger (1906–80), an Austrian physician with a complicated legacy. The American Psychiatric Association reclassified the syndrome as autism spectrum disorder in 2013, but the eponym lives on, and abbreviated forms like asperge and aspie have informal use in this context.

I didn’t track down the origins of the surname, beyond a claim that it’s Dutch, but I would guess that it came from a role or job that involved asperging. And now you know what that means, if you didn’t before.

18 Responses to Asperging words

  1. Ranald says:

    the word is often used in connection with sprinkling holy water so a very thoughtful use in the context

  2. Catbar UK says:

    It’s Latin.

    This wonderful piece of music can clear blocked sinuses.

  3. ktschwarz says:

    The reference to “winter in Northern Ireland in 1947” confused me: surely there wasn’t a German bombing attack in that year? I think that after mentioning the winter of 1947 (a time described earlier in the book, when the snow was so deep that it covered the still-standing air-raid shelters), the narrator’s memory jumps farther back, to the war and the bombing. The internet tells me that Derry (setting of the book) was indeed bombed only once in World War II, on 15 April 1941, the same night when Belfast was bombed much more heavily.

    Just on leafing through the book, I’ve seen several new-to-me words: snib, window latch (dictionaries say “chiefly Scottish”, but Northern Ireland has close linguistic connections to Scotland); putlock, something used in building; simmet, a man’s undershirt (in dictionaries as semmit, also labeled Scottish). Interesting to see these homely local words mixed freely in the narrator’s voice with high-register technical words like ocelli.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re right – and that’s a good lesson in how focusing on one thing can lead to inattention to another! I’ve deleted “in 1947” to prevent further confusion.

      The book is rich in vocabulary, all right. Snib has a noticeable overlap with sneck, an old dialect word with the same meaning: a latch for a door, gate, window, etc., or the act of fastening such a latch.

      • Ranald says:

        It’s all very interesting. ‘Snib’ isn’t an ‘old dialect word’, though, but a Scots word in everyday use. It’s used literally and figuratively in quite a playful way.

  4. John Cowan says:

    Baptism can be by aspersion, affusion, immersion, or triple immersion, and different sects generally prefer one of these, accept all forms to the right, and reject all forms to the left.

  5. Now THAT was fascinating. Thank you! I never heard the word.

  6. “On the snib” is standard English English for leaving the latch locked in an open or closed position on a Yale-type lock

      • Ranald says:

        Many thanks for this. I’ve never heard the phrase in all my time in England. ‘On the snib’ is also a standard phrase in Scots.

    • Edward Barrett says:

      I think this may have evolved into ‘snip’ – though whether that’s a general shift, specific to Liverpool, or current only in my family, I couldn’t say.

      • Ranald MacInnes says:

        Thanks for this. In Scotland, if I remember correctly, ‘on the snib’ meant the door was closed with the lock or latch open. Someone would say ‘I’ll leave the door on the snib’ if they were going to be out when you called but would be back later.

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