June 29, 2002
Parasites, Ancient And Modern

I'm coming to this rather late, but it's an interesting case of dueling dictionaries:

Last Tuesday, Megan McArdle ("Jane Galt") of Live . . . from the WTC quoted a remark of InstaPundit Watch from last Sunday:

[Instapundit] calls Instapundit Watcher a "parasite", which she learned in school is usually defined as a hanger-on, a toady, a sycophant. Instapundit Watcher defies anybody to call her that. That title better fits some of Instapundits warblogging friends, especially the ones with the oh so clever variations on the "-pundit" theme, aka the "I want Instapundit's traffic" crowd.

Megan replied:

I don't know what college Instapundit Watcher attended, but my dictionary defines a parasite as "something that resembles a biological parasite in dependence on something else for existence or support without making a useful or adequate return". Which I think more than adequately describes a site called Instapundit Watcher.

So far, so good, but there's more to it than that. The InstaPundit Watcher is half-right, but that's no defense. Here is the entry for 'parasite' in the American Heritage Dictionary, the first one reported by Dictionary.com:

  1. Biology. An organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host.
  2. a. One who habitually takes advantage of the generosity of others without making any useful return.
    b. One who lives off and flatters the rich; a sycophant.
  3. A professional dinner guest, especially in ancient Greece.

Meaning 3 is the oldest, but 2.a (the metaphorical use of 1) is clearly what InstaPundit meant, and what any more-than-half-educated American means when he or she says 'parasite' in a neutral (non-classical) context. Meaning 2.a could be put less pejoratively, and more accurately, as by Megan's unnamed dictionary. Webster's, which comes second on Dictionary.com, gives roughly the same meanings in the opposite order. I have no access on weekends, but I assume that the Oxford English Dictionary also puts the 'toady' meaning before the biological meaning, since it is organized on historical principles. Still, meaning depends on context, and the oldest meaning of a word is not necessarily the commonest or most standard. Meryl Yourish has had a lot on her blog about slugs lately, and we all know that a slug crawling on the lawn is likely to be a mollusc, while a slug lodged in a vending machine or a gangster's heart is likely to be made of metal. (Fewer know that a slug standing by the side of the road in Washington, D.C. is a hitchhiking commuter.) Intelligent and honorable people assume that a speaker or writer intends whichever meaning is most appropriate, and do not take offense at a meaning that was not necessarily, or even probably, intended. Then again, intelligent and honorable people do not claim to have learned in school what they are quoting without attribution from an easily-available dictionary: "a hanger-on; a toady; a sycophant" are the last words of Webster's meaning 1 on Dictionary.com. Unless she memorized Webster's when she was in school, the InstaPundit Watcher should have put those words in quotation marks, as I have. Changing the semicolons to commas is not enough to make the words her own.

Today's History Lesson: The parasite is one of the stock characters in Roman comedy. He made his living flattering and amusing the wealthy, who would invite him to dinner for the pleasure of his company, without expecting any return invitation. He was in some ways the free-lance version of the Mediaeval court jester. The closest modern parallel I can think of is Kato Kaelin, who doesn't seem to have paid any rent for his weeks at O. J. Simpson's house. He never seemed particularly amusing to me, but perhaps that is because we only got to know him after the murder. Of course, Simpson may also have low standards for humor, or Kaelin may have made up for any shortcomings on the wit side by slathering on the flattery. The characters played by David Spade on Just Shoot Me and in the Coneheads movie also share many traits with the classical parasite, though they are salaried employees.

Parasites appear in several of Plautus' comedies. As it happens, these include all three of the Roman plays I've read with students over the years. In the Miles Gloriosus or "Swaggering Soldier", one of the sources for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the parasite is named Artotrogus, which means 'Bread Muncher'. In the Curculio, the parasite is the title-character, 'Mr. Weevil', a human parasite named after an animal pest. The Curculio is one of my favorite plays: though among the shortest in the Plautine canon, it is the only one that includes all five of his stock secondary characters: besides the standard pair of thwarted young lovers, we have a sleazy pimp, a drunken old woman, a crooked banker, a boastful soldier, and of course the title parasite. Finally, in the Menaechmi or "Menaechmus Twins", the source for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, the parasite is named Peniculus, which means 'Brush', since he sweeps the table clean wherever he is invited. At least, that's how he explains his name. There seems to be a further pun, since the name could also mean 'Small Penis'.

Today's Language Lesson: Latin penis originally meant 'tail', and was only later extended to mean 'appendage' and then restricted to one particular kind of appendage. As with the English word, Latin penis is not entirely obscene, and there are cruder equivalents such as mentula. Brushes were originally made from animal tails, so the diminutive of penis, peniculus, means 'small brush', though it could also mean, or at least imply, 'diminutive penis'. By the way, the plural of 'penis' is not 'penii', as I have seen on some websites. It's either 'penises' (English) or 'penes' (Latin). The Latin word forms its plural the same way as axis (axes), basis (bases), and analysis (analyses).

To return to my subject, it seems to me that InstaPundit Watcher must be one of three things:

  1. Someone who was a Classics major in college, or at least took Classics courses, but no Biology or Zoology. That is the only background that would make the ancient meaning more familiar than the biological one. It would still be no excuse: even a professional Latin teacher like myself, hearing the word 'parasite', tends to think of the animal kind unless the context called for the other, for instance if I'm reading an article about Plautus in Classical Philology.
  2. Someone who is not as familiar as she ought to be with standard contemporary English, and must use a dictionary to find out precisely what 'parasite' means. This has its pitfalls, since no guidance is given on which meaning best fits the situation. And neither of the on-line dictionaries will tell you that metaphorical use of the biological meaning of 'parasite' is quite common: that takes reading.
  3. Someone who is disingenuous and argues dishonestly. It certainly looks as if the InstaPundit Watcher may have gone out looking for the least flattering definition as an excuse to take offense and accuse InstaPundit of using that one and not the other, more likely, one.

If we could be sure that my first hypothesis is true, we -- by which I mean the card-carrying members of the oppressive Warblogger conspiracy, working together to suppress dissent and terrorize the dissenters -- would be one step closer to identifying the anonymous woman behind InstaPundit Watch. (Or is she a woman? That could be part of the disguise!) Which of us can find the next clue? Perhaps Megan's retort will trick her into revealing her college. The effort applied to unmasking her will be well worth the trouble. Once she is identified, reported to Tom Ridge's hypersecret Committee for the Enforcement of Homeland Security and Suppression of Dissent, arrested by these real 'Men in Black', and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay in a hood and leg-irons, the standard $10,000 check will be issued by Warblogger Central Command, backed by the full faith and credit of the Scaife Foundation, and signed by Commander Reynolds himself. A commemorative plaque will accompany the check. Let's get started, guys!

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 29, 2002 07:44 PM

Chris Miller's stories in National Lampoon used to render it "peni", which is also wrong, but at least differently so.

The other double-i word that makes no sense to me is "virii", which some believe is the plural of "virus". Is this construction somehow related?

Posted by: CGHill on June 29, 2002 10:36 PM

The problem with 'virus' is that the Latin word doesn't have any plural (it's a collective and means "poison", "venom", or any disgusting liquid) and is also irregular in the singular (neuter gender, but looks masculine with its -us ending) so you can't tell what the plural would be if it had one. So the only available plural is the standard English form "viruses".

I think the thing with the -ii endings is that they are familiar from various common names: one Julius, two Julii, one Claudius, two Claudii, and so on. Perhaps also from depictions of the battle between the Horatii and the Curiatii (including the second one at this site). Since the double I looks exotic and Roman, it is then applied randomly to other words.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on July 2, 2002 11:34 AM

I have some ideas on who she is if she's definitely a she, but then again, uh--who cares?

Some of us have more important things to do with our lives, eh?

Doc, I am far too tired to be reading your blog. Remind me to make sure my mind is fresh and it's the beginning of the day, because I'm scared to death there's going to be a pop quiz tomorrow and I'm not prepared for it.

Posted by: Meryl Yourish on July 3, 2002 11:25 PM