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Truffle – Podictionary Word of the Day

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If you have experienced truffles they are most likely to be the chocolate kind.  These only came later and although they might seem expensive, they are a bargain compared to the truffles they take their name form.

The first citation we have in English for the word truffle comes in a translation of a 1591 document entitled The geomancie of Maister Christopher Cattan Gentleman.

Geomancie was a very popular technique at the time for predicting the future.  It was like reading the signs in chicken entrails, but without the mess.

Instead geomancie used signs from the earth itself.  And two of the things that came from the earth are mentioned in this citation we have for truffle.  One is topaz, the precious stone and the other is truffle itself.

Originally truffles had nothing to do with chocolate and everything to do with earth.

Truffles are a kind of mushroom that grows underground.  They are highly prized by gourmets and consequently sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars a pound.

But the Geomancie of Maister Christopher Cattan Gentleman got it all wrong because what it says there is that

“The Topas and the Truffle haue power of Chastity, and to subdue the flesh.”

If this was true I suspect the market price of truffles would be lower than the chocolate variety.

The fact is that truffles are so highly valued because they are particularly aromatic and the reason they are aromatic is because they need to attract hungry animals to help them spread their spores.

Not only is the truffle itself motivated by sex, but some of the complex aromas it produces mimic sexual aromas in animals.

Pigs in particular are turned on by truffles.

And to the extent that a man’s armpit holds any appeal at all, some truffle scent elements share these manly attributes; at least according to the chemists.  There must be something to it, referring again to the price tag on the things.

As far as the etymology of truffle goes, their poor cousins are potatoes since the thinking is that truffle evolved from the Latin word tuber.

The reason that both truffles and potatoes are tubers is that a tuber is a swelling, in this case on the roots of plants or trees.

This swelling meaning goes back to Indo-European teu and has made its way up into any number of modern words for things that are swollen.

Thumbs are thicker than other fingers and the thigh is the thicker part of the leg. Both thumb and thigh go back to the same Indo-European root.

For all their value truffles are shapeless blobs with a dusty crackled surface and it seems that it was this shape and surface texture that caused their name to be lent to chocolate truffles, not their luxury allure.

The first citation we have for chocolate truffles is from 1926 in the unlikeliest of places, the Army & Navy Stores catalogue.

If you’ve ever had supper in an Italian restaurant where they served tartuffo for desert, now you know that this ball of ice-cream with nuts or chocolate shavings as a coating is named for the Italian word for truffle.

Moliere, the French playwright wrote a play called Tartuffe.  The main character is named Tartuffe because he is a religious hypocrite and like a truffle his true nature lies hidden below the surface.

Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

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