Resetting the table

Yesterday’s posting explained that mesa, the Spanish word for ‘table,’ developed from Latin mensa, which meant the same thing. Before Mensa came to be the name of a high-intelligence organization, it had been (and still is) the name of a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere that in someone’s imagination must have looked like a table. The Catholic Church uses mensa to designate ‘the stone slab that forms the top of an altar.’

The little-used English adjective mensal means ‘pertaining to the [dining] table, occurring at the table’; the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary gave the phrase mensal conversation as an example of how the word could be used. With the prefix co- ‘together,’ Spanish comensal means ‘someone who eats at the same table with other people,’ which is to say ‘a fellow diner.’ English can use the word in the same way but spells it commensal. From the original notion of sharing a meal, biologists have extended the meaning of commensal to ‘involving a symbiotic relationship that is beneficial for one species but neutral for the other.’ Wikipedia’s article on commensalism gives as an example the situation in which birds follow army ants: “As the army ant colony travels on the forest floor, they stir up various flying insect species. As the insects flee from the army ants, the birds following the ants catch the fleeing insects. In this way, the army ants and the birds are in a commensal relationship because the birds benefit while the army ants are unaffected.” The Spanish equivalent is comensalismo.

When you’re having supper tonight, if your commensals aren’t too squeamish, you can bring up the topic of eating insects in your mensal conversation.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman


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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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