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:
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:
[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.