Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

On From Our Own Correspondent (which now seems to be made up of gobbets no longer than a minute, like something contrived by the National Theatre of Brent) on the wireless on New Year's Day somebody said that the sky was 'bezoar blue'. I might have written down who it was who said it, but my apron had somehow caught the edge of a hot baking-tray fall of parboiled potatoes seething in fat, neatly spinning them upside-down on to the kitchen floor, and that put it out of my mind, especially since the cat was showing the most stupid interest - she must have known she'd be burnt.

Anyway, I am sure he said 'bezoar'. I had always thought that was a kind of antelope, as indeed it is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But the origin of the word is surprising.

It comes from the Persian zahr, meaning 'poison', or rather from pad-zahr, meaning 'antidote'. This was supposed to be one of the properties of the hard concretions, secreted on a similar principle to pearls, found in the innards of ruminants such as Persian wild goats or antelopes. Apparently the bezoars of llamas from Peru were for some reason less valued, and the stones from chamois were known as 'German bezoars'.

If the word had been allowed to follow a regular history it would now be pronounced beezer, like the comic. …

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