Descendants of Latin virga

The Latin noun virga meant, as defined in Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary, ‘a slender green branch, a twig, sprout, switch, rod.’ From the Latin word came Spanish verga, which is little changed in form and which retains the already mentioned meanings of the Latin word. The Romans metaphorically applied virga to ‘a streak, stripe in the heavens; a water-gall.’ I’d not heard of a water-gall, but it apparently means the same thing that virga does in the use that modern climatologists have put it to, and that the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘wisps of precipitation streaming from a cloud but evaporating before reaching the ground.’

A Latin Dictionary is a work of the Victorian period, so its authors were squeamish about glossing another sense the Romans had transferred to virga; Lewis and Short defined that meaning of the Latin noun by using more Latin: ‘Genitalium, = membrum virile.’ Not only has Spanish retained the anatomical sense in verga, but the DRAE even lists it first among the meanings it gives. Through the word’s French cognate, English has acquired verge, whose meanings include: ‘a rod, wand, or staff carried as an emblem of authority or office; the spindle of a balance wheel in a clock or watch, especially such a spindle in a clock with vertical escapement; the male organ of copulation in certain mollusks.’ In case you’re wondering whether this is the same verge that English uses in the expression on the verge of, it is; the original ‘slender rod’ was taken metaphorically as a dividing line between one condition and another.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim R
    Jul 10, 2017 @ 14:59:07

    I like to see virga curtains down from the clouds. We saw some in Dubois, WY recently.


  2. navasolanature
    Jul 11, 2017 @ 07:45:31

    Now that’s fascinating. So the verges on our roadsides are also strips. And the Almodovar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown!
    But La Virgen?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 11, 2017 @ 08:08:03

      It is fascinating, isn’t it? That’s why I love etymology.

      As for the similar virgin, it’s unrelated. It would be temptingly easy to make a play on words involving the two, but for the sake of decency I’ll refrain.


  3. shoreacres
    Jul 12, 2017 @ 21:41:35

    The photo I used for this post shows virga at sunset. It’s the most beautiful example I’ve seen; the tangerine patch in the lower right is the virga. In the enlargement, you can see the streaks coming down. They’re faint, but they’re there.

    I didn’t use the word in the post itself, but there are a couple of comments where I mentioned it, like the very last exchange at the bottom with Steve Gingold.

    I’ve heard the word “verger” used in relation to churches. I’ve always thought of it as a designation for a caretaker, but your explanation makes it more understandable.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 12, 2017 @ 23:56:00

      This has proved a time of multiple learning for me. There was the virga, which you illustrated in your post, and now the verger you mentioned that I see defined as ‘one who carries the verge or other emblem of authority before a scholastic, legal, or religious dignitary in a procession.’ From that came the secondary sense of ‘one who takes care of the interior of a church and acts as an attendant during ceremonies.’ It also makes sense to think of a verger as ‘one who verges’ but I don’t know how often people have used the word that way.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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