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Pronounced /ˈnjuːsᵻfɔːm/Help with pronunciation

John Fisher reminded me, following my discussion of marthambles, that George Bernard Shaw satirised doctors and surgeons of his day for espousing remedies that were no less fictitious than Dr Tufts’ diseases of marthambles, hockogrocle and moon-pall. In Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma of 1906, the famous surgeon Sir Cutler Walpole advocated the removal of the nuciform sac, a bodily organ unknown to medical science. Shaw was satirising the then widespread practice of removing the appendix in the belief that it would cure various chronic diseases, including mental conditions.

A couple of decades later, the writer and silent-film actor Louis Sherwin was quoted on leaving Hollywood as describing the place as “that paradise of the nuciform brain”. (He also said “I am glad to say farewell to a city where the inhabitants know only one word of two syllables, ‘fil-lum’.”)

Nuciform is a sensible and useful English word, albeit one that few of us need unless we’re botanists (or disgruntled film actors who know their Shaw). It simply means nut-like or nut-shaped. The earliest use that I’ve found is in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 1843, in an article by a man named, would you believe, Nuttall.

Its origin is the classical Latin prefix nuci-, which derives from nux, a nut. The earliest English word that employed the prefix is the highly obscure nuciprune (from Latin prūnum, a plum), a fruit halfway between a nut and a plum. The botanist Nehemiah Grew (another appropriate name, that) created it in 1682 for the walnut, whose plum-like character is elusive until you think of the fruit on the tree, encased in green flesh and looking like an unripe plum. If you would like to be even more obscure, when next cracking a walnut you could refer to the nucifragous implement you’re wielding, in plain English a nutcracker.

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Page created 31 May 2014