Saturday, April 17, 2010


In 1578, the botanist, antiquarian, and translator Henry Lyte introduced the English-speaking world to Dodoens' Niewe herball* or historie of plantes. The original tome was written by Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens. Lyte's edition--so the Oxford English Dictionary tells us--presents the first known use of the English word "catkin," derived from the Dutch katteken, diminutive for katte, meaning little cat. Dodoens apparently saw a resemblance between kittens and those dangly, scruffy, pollen-bearing attempts at flowers that fall out of certain trees in the springtime and accumulate into giant pollen tumbleweeds.

Even when they are not traveling in gangs, catkins do not strike me as particularly kitten-like; consider the photo above, for example, in which a catkin insinuates itself upon a hot pink azalea blossom. A kitten might have enhanced the image; the catkin does not. The etymology thus makes me think Dodoens did not care for cats.

And in fact, cats historically have had a pretty rough time of things in Belgium. Nothing illustrates this better than a festival that has been held every few years over the past few centuries in Ieper (the modern, Flemish name for Ypres). Wikipedia calls the Kattenstoet "a parade devoted to the cat." Although Kattenstoet may be Dutch for "cat parade," I say the word looks suspiciously like Katzentot--German for "cats' death."** Indeed, the Kattenstoet celebrates the medieval tradition of hurling cats out of the marketplace tower belfry onto the town square below. Oh dear. It is some consolation that the last time revelers hurled live cats was in 1817.

But enough about pollen and kitten abuse. Below are a few catkin-less images of the season. The azaleas and stars-of-Bethlehem exploded this week. Especially attractive is the demure pink blush on the white azaleas. Spring also ushers in YMCA soccer, making this a good time to pore over German soccer trading cards with friends.

*I keep misreading herball as "hairball" rather than "herbal," but I think there's some justice in that.
**Katzentot is one of those remarkable theoretical German words that exists in practice only because someone (in this case, me) thought to smush a few real words together.

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