Astute or Astutis?

by Yule Heibel on July 5, 2003

Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner, is a quote from Byron’s Don Juan, which the excellent Margaret Visser uses, abridged, as the title to her book, Much Depends on Dinner. It was a bit of a cheap shot on my part to associate her with that cannibalistic little devil, Dagol, whom I just mentioned in my last post, but Margaret wrote something about lettuce that really has me puzzled, just as Dagol puzzles me. I wonder if anyone can explain this. Apropos of lettuce, one of the courses in her Dinner, Visser wrote that Greek women called “the [lettuce] plant astutis, ‘incapable of an erection.'” There is even a Greek play called the Impotents (Astutoi) by Euboulos, in which a husband warns his wife that she has “only herself to blame” if she serves him lettuce for supper. (See p.196) (That is, feed your man lettuce, and watch him wilt?) Here’s my problem: the word astutis seems so clearly to be linked to our modern word astute, but the meaning of the latter is almost completely opposite to the former. How can this be? Are they, or aren’t they, connected? To whit: the Oxford English Dictionary defines astute as deriving from the French word, astut, which in turn derives from the Latin, astutus, which is a lengthened (no pun intended, read on) form of the Latin astus, which means crafty, cunning. The actual definition of the word astute is then given: Of keen penetration or discernment, esp. in regard to one’s own interests; shrewd, subtle, sagacious; wily, cunning, crafty. Ok, help me out here: we have a Greek word that basically means “incapable of an erection,” and a Latin word that seems clearly to be derived from it, but which means something quite opposite, namely keen penetration, with crafty cunning thrown in, particularly concerning one’s own interests. Did the French transitionally pull something over on us here? After all, athough it came from the Latin, it went through them, and now it’s ours, and I’m fogged. Have we been wielding forked weapons all this time? Dealing with paradox? Flaccid penetration? Penetrating diffusion? Cunning impotence? Is Astutis a female goddess? Is the male member a woman? Shall we have salad as a first or as a last course? And about Dagol: is he astute or astutis? Does he not look plant-like, despite his earthy-swarthy skin? A little lettuce-y around the eyes, the wings, the hair? The fluffy-foggy stuff around his lower half certainly doesn’t promise anything penetrating, either: it’s all rather …vague. The snakes writhing up look like swans or a gaggle of very female geese-heads. Is he after all an Enlightenment joke on devilishness? An icon for today, even? An emasculated cannibal, for whom we just have to substitute chicken fingers for the children’s limbs? The late-18th century German Romantics sorta-kinda invented modern irony, and looking at Dagol, I rather think they gave us a portrait of Big Brother, poor sod: just a mirror.

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