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Bird-Dogging Bush, Quayle in Webster’s

Any line of inquiry that will give us a clue to the real nature of our presidential and vice presidential candidates is not to be ignored.

A reader, Margaret W. Romani, noticed that Bush and Quayle were homonym and homophone, respectively, for bush and quail, and wondered where a dictionary search of those common nouns would lead to.

She pursued her “scavenger hunt,” as she calls it, in Webster’s Unabridged, and was surprised to discover, almost at once, that the term quail bush was listed as a variant of quail brush .

Quail bush , she found, means “a spiny shrub that has scurfy foliage and is found on the alkali plains of the Southwestern United States and adjacent Mexico.”

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Because by her own rules she was free to pursue any clue she wished, Romani chose to pursue scurfy , an undeniably curious word, and one that held promise of revealing the character of the two Republican candidates.

Scurfy , she found, simply led her to scurf , which turned out to be a botanical term meaning “the scaly pubescence found on certain leaves.”

There was something about pubescence that sounded pertinent, so Romani looked it up and found: “Pubescence, 2, epidermal covering of soft short hairs or down, as on the surfaces of leaves and stems.”

Pursuing epidermal , she found the noun epidermis , with a verbose definition containing numerous intriguing clues: “epidermis, bot. The thin layer of cells forming the external integument in seed plants and ferns. The epidermis is always present on leaves and herbaceous stems or shoots, its growth keeping pace with that of the primary cortex. Its cells usually lack chloroplasts, but are rich in cell sap, which is often pigmented. . . . No true epidermis occurs in the lower plants, but the scaly layer on the thallus of foliose lichens is sometimes so called.”

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At this point the profusion of signposts-- cortex, chloroplasts, thallus of foliose lichens and cell sap-- left Romani in a funk of indecision.

She declined to go on: “Suddenly I realized that my original quest had been fulfilled; my mind was no longer repeating those words quail bush . I didn’t really have to make a choice--at least not yet. However, I now have the two words cell sap wandering in and out of the corridors of my brain.”

I would not have abandoned the traces of quail bush so soon. How could Romani give up the hunt without pursuing thallus and foliose ? Taking up the game myself, I found that thallus is from the Greek thallos , meaning “a young shoot.” Surely thallus is evocative of the young shoot Dan Quayle.

Foliose means simply leafy, but the definition of lichen is provocative: “any of a large group of small plants composed of a particular fungus and a particular alga growing in an intimate symbiotic association and forming a dual plant, commonly adhering in colored patches or spongelike branches to rock, wood, soil, etc. . . .”

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It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to think of either of the competing presidential teams as a fungus and an alga growing in intimate symbiotic, spongelike association.

It would seem only fair to pursue Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen in the same way; but neither name is a homonym or homophone for any common noun, and so can not be found in an English dictionary. It is possible, I suppose, that Dukakis is a common noun in Greek, but, alas, I have no Greek dictionary.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the word Bush originally meant a pub. Its origin in that role goes back to Roman times, when tavern keepers tied a bunch of evergreens to a pole outside their establishments in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine. In medieval England the word bush appeared as a pub sign and is still to be seen as such. Sometimes an establishment near a bush would be named Bird in Hand, in an obvious reference to the ancient adage, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”

There must be some way for Dukakis and Bentsen to capitalize on that durable piece of wisdom, but I can’t think of it.

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Unless Dukakis means bird in Greek.


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