Slovaks Love Mushrooms – In The English Language We Call Them “Toadstools” – Why?

The authors R. Gordon Wasson and Valentina Pavlovna Wasson spent a great deal of time and effort investigating why some cultures (such as the husband’s American culture) loathed wild mushrooms, while other cultures (such as the wive’s Slavic culture) adored them.

In this selection, from their book Mushrooms, Russia, and History, they analyze the English word “toadstool” and identify it as part of the “mycophobic” aspect of English culture. Wasson and Wasson coined two new words – mychophobic (cultures that avoid wild mushrooms) and mycophilic (cultures that seek out wild mushrooms).  Slovak culture is most certainly mycophilic.  Below is their investigation into the history and etymology of the word toadstool.

TOADSTOOL is a strange term, and doubly strange because no one in our wordconscious times seems to have paused to look at it. Toads do not sit on wild fungi, nor under nor around them; neither do they eat them. Indeed toads and frogs have no direct physical or biological link with toadstools. Our word, with roots deep in our folkways, is not, in  any way obvious to us, a distillate of man’s observation of nature. The Oxford Dictionary says it is a ‘fanciful’ name, and thus sidesteps a riddle. Not infrequently commercial artists and fanciful illustrators of children’s books represent toads with toadstools, and occasionally even photographers contrive by trickery to juxtapose the two. In every such instance they draw their inspiration from the word, not from nature.

Why ‘toadstool’; This question sank its spurs in us some years ago and pricked us onwards, until soon we found ourselves launched on a pilgrimage to far-off places and remote times, to the frontiers of men’s knowledge and beyond, where we sought to discern vistas behind the beginnings of recorded history. Through the  worn faces of familiar words we re-discovered things that civilized men had forgotten. We may have found, in the end, successive answers to our toadstool riddle, layer beneath layer, as well as answers to a number of other fungal mysteries that reared their challenging heads along our path. The measure of our success will be the cogency of certain problems of larger scope that seem to emerge from our argument, problems that we gladly bequeath to others.

The sinister mark of the toad is not confined to the English fungal vocabulary. You will find it in Norwegian and Danish, though not in Swedish; in Low German, Dutch, and Frisian; in Breton, Welsh, and Irish. The romance languages know it not, except for traces in French. Nor does it survive in standard High German, though it lingers on in High German dialects. Thus the citadel of the ‘toadstool’ is in the ring of peoples who dwell around the shores of the North Sea, a gigantic and evil Fairy Ring, as it were, embracing fringes of the Teutonic peoples and the surviving Celts, along with the French. (The Bretons, let it be remembered, emigrated from Britain to their present home across the Channel in the fifth and sixth centuries after Christ, and are thus remote heirs, folkwise, of old Britain.)

Not all of these peoples use the figure of the toad’s stool. The Norwegians and Danes speak of the toad’s hat; the Low Germans, of the frog’s stool; the Dutch say toad’s stool; and the Frisians refer to an old fungus as a toad’s hide.

The Irish term is the frog’s pouch; the Welsh, toad’s cheese; the Bretons, toad’s cap, but by the addition of a single initial sibilant, their term becomes toad’s stool, and this is a recognized  variant in their language. Here are the words in these tongues: in Norwegian and Danish,  paddehat; in Low German, poggenstohl; in Dutch,  paddestoel; in Frisian,  poddehud; in Irish,  bolg losgainn, with bolg  meaning pouch; in Welsh, caws llyffant, with caws  meaning cheese; in Breton, kabell tousec, and also skabell tousec. The Pennsylvania Dutch speak a dialect of High German that comes down from the language of the Palatinate in the 18th century, and in Pennsylvania  Dutch we find both  toad’s stool and toad’s foot: grottestuhl andgrottefuss. We know that toad’s bread,pain de crapault, was used for wild fungi in 16th century France, and this same expression has been reported in modern times in the Calvados  region of Normandy. The amanita muscaria, with its red cap flecked by warts, is called crapaudin in some parts of France and this word in the form grapaoudin has been reported as far south as the Herault, on the Mediterranean.

Now we turn to the Breton language, and here perhaps we discover a loose end to Ariadne’s thread, a possible clue to our problem. The word for toad in Breton is tousec. It comes from the Latin toxicum, and therefore means ‘the poisonous one’. On an earlier page  we said that the standard word for ‘toadstool’ in Breton is kabell tousec, wherein kabell (from the Low Latin cappa and capello] means ‘cap’. When the early Bretons spoke of the toadstool as the kabell tousec, the term meant to them ‘the poison cap’, as well as the toad’s cap; and the variant skabell tousec could have meant ‘the poison stool’ as well as the toad’s stool.

In Britain, the island that the Bretons had left behind, are we surprised to discover that the Anglo-Saxon word tosca meant toad? It is, we submit, identical to the Breton word, offspring of toxicum, and another example of’the poisonous one’. We have mentioned the English name for the bufo calamita – the natterjack. We believe that the root of this word is to be found in the AngloSaxon word for poison  -ator;  a word that as ‘etter’  survived in English for centuries, and still circulates in dialect, to designate the venom of a reptile, and the corrupt matter that oozes from a suppurating ulcer or abscess. An ‘attercop’ is an old word for a (supposedly poisonous) spider. In modern Dutch etter still means pus. If we are right, what we now call ‘a natterjack’ was once ‘an atterjack’, the shuttling V being a well known linguistic quirk. The jack’ is simply the same element that we find in the jumping- jack’. The ‘atterjack’ is then a ‘poison jack’, and an Anglo-Saxon rendering of the Latinism tosca…  (Some interesting text on witches omitted here).

If ‘toad’ descends etymologically to us from toxicum, then in English as in the Breton tongue a ‘toadstool’ in its ultimate meaning is a ‘poison stool’, and the idea of poison, rather than the toad, may have been dominant in the minds of those who first applied this term to the wild fungi in the Anglo-Saxon world.

In any case, whatever the  etymology, the cultural soil  in which ‘toad’ had its beginnings explains that aura of abhorrence which bathes the word to this day in the English language. We discover why the Oxford Dictionary fails to satisfy us when it dismisses the problem of the toadstool by calling it a ‘fanciful’ term. We realize why the headline in The Times, EDIBLE TOADSTOOLS, shocks us as a contradiction in terms.

The quote above is excerpted from the fantastic book Mushrooms, Russia, and History available here for purchase on Amazon (at quite an expensive price) or here (Volume 1 and Volume 2 both as PDF files)to be read free of charge.  I strongly recommend this book for those with an interest in a discussion of Slavic culture with an emphasis on Russia and also with discussion of European and world culture in general.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

Photo credit: etsy.com

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