My wife and I recently cajoled our kids into forsaking their old children’s breakfast cereal—essentially colorful sugar with a cartoon mascot—in favor of healthier fare. My son initially balked at grown-up cereals by commenting that the one I eat is “twigs and bark, like a beaver’s breakfast.” That made me chuckle for two reasons: not only was it marvelously apt, but he was unwittingly making a Latin pun.
If there’s one obsession among grown-up cereals, it’s fiber. The child-adult marketing dichotomy has become so stark that every cereal box bears either a cartoon character or a boast about fiber content, the latter being funny to Latinists who know that fiber is also Latin for “beaver.” Boxes touting “Now with 20% more fiber!” are less appealing to those of us who don’t want to eat beaver for breakfast.
There’s another Latin word for “beaver,” namely castor, which puts castor oil in a different light. As unappetizing as beaver oil would be, it’s a quirky fact that castoreum, a beaver extract, was consumed by the Romans for its purported medicinal value. If you’re reading this blog over breakfast, you might want to stop reading before I explain that castoreum is a yellowish-brown goo squeezed from sacs under a beaver’s tail, used by the Romans to treat everything from headaches to epilepsy. It’s still used today in some musk-scented perfumes, though its present-day use as a food additive has been exaggerated.
Of course, fiber is far from the only word with radically different meanings in English and Latin. Just starting with F, some other examples include the following:
FAUX – “chasm; strait”
FAX – “flame of love; torch” (as in “to carry a torch for”)
FLAX – “sickle”
FOCAL – “scarf, neck wrap”
FUNGI – “I executed” as well as the expected “mushrooms”
FUR – “thief”
Elsewhere in the alphabet, one needn’t be bardus to think bardus means “bard,” but it actually means “stupid.” Coerceo means “I surround,” not “I coerce.” Crispus means “curly,” not “crispy,” and pondus means “weight” (related to “pound” and “ponderous”) rather than “pond.” Latex means “liquid,” so every time I see a can of “latex paint,” I’m thankful they’re not selling paint as a solid, gas, or plasma. Latin vocabulary is always good for a surprise or two, as well as the occasional chuckle in the supermarket’s cereal aisle.