A WORD IN THE HAND: MAGGOT
Live risotto causes the mulligrubs and makes you go ‘mawke’
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
The most remarkable thing about the neverending Brexit serial is not that there’s always another cliffhanger, but that the flummoxing stay-or-go chaos has not caused the British government to shut down entirely.
It seems the Brits are made of tougher stuff than their cousins across the Atlantic. In the US, cross-party negotiations hit a wall and for weeks no civil servants were paid, which no doubt made them uncivil. In barmy, beleaguered Blighty, however, it has been business as usual.
One of the things her majesty’s civil service has been doing is breeding maggots for export. How such a product managed to comply with EU labelling rules is a mystery, but there it is: the UK’s department for international development is raising millions of fly larvae and packing them off to war zones so that the squirmy little critters can clean wounds and save limbs by eating all the pus and other rotten stuff that might otherwise cause infection.
If the Telegraph is to be believed, not only do maggots remove dead tissue and flesh, their saliva contains a natural disinfectant. So next time you cut your finger, don’t go and buy expensive antiseptic cream. Just find a maggot and ask it politely if it will spit on you.
The report about maggots reminded me of a recent December when a heatwave, coupled with a small dip in the efficacy of garbage removal, caused a plague of flies. Either that or we were being punished for something.
Flies lay eggs, and out of the eggs come maggots, and maggots might be good at cleaning out wounds but they can get in the way of a relationship, particularly when one person locks herself away because she can’t bear the sight of the ghastly things and the other person has to deal with the live risotto that has climbed out of the dustbin.
Love, if you ask me, is being willing to rid the house of fly larvae so that your maggot-phobic beloved can come out of the bedroom. During that December, from my place of safety I could feel the love emanating from the kitchen, where a gross of wriggling rice grains writhed on the tiles until my partner scooped them onto a paper plate and sang out: “Grub’s up!” (I did not find this funny at the time.)
A maggot is sometimes called a grub. This noun, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, was used in the 15th century to describe a dwarf or someone of short stature. It is a fact that maggots are not very tall. Grub as a slang word for food was coined by watchers of birds who eat maggots, whether out of wounds or off china plates.
“Grubstreet” (often followed by the word “rag”) denotes a publication that concerns itself with paltry gossip. Grubstreet has nothing to do with dwarves or maggots – it was the name of an actual road in London in the 1620s. Samuel Johnson wrote that it was a street “much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet”. (What is a temporary poem, I wonder? Does it stop rhyming at midnight?)
In 1830, Grubstreet was renamed Milton Street and in the 1970s it disappeared beneath the brutish Barbican centre, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Shakespeare did not write much about maggots, although there must have been loads of them crawling about his Globe. Imagine if the actor playing Hamlet, halfway through his soliloquy, spotted an errant worm shuffling off the stage. “To sleep, perchance to dream ... Hey! There’s the grub!”
“Mulligrubs” is a marvellous word that for some unknown reason fell out of fashion. Later referring to a stomach ache, mulligrubs started life as a euphemism for depression. World Wide Words gives this 1898 example from US journalist William Cowper Brann:
“It is easy enough to say that a pessimist is a person afflicted with an incurable case of mulligrubs – one whom nothing in all earth or Heaven or Hades pleases; one who usually deserves nothing, yet grumbles if he gets it.”
Dealing with grubs gives me the mulligrubs, but my partner’s nobility in dealing with these fearsome beasts makes me quite mawkish.
Today when we call something mawkish, we mean it is sickeningly sentimental. But mawkish was not always associated with Tom Hanks movies. It comes from the Middle English “mawke” – a maggot. It might be pure coincidence that “mawke” is also the sound one makes when retching, but either way, “mawkish” used simply to describe that sick feeling you get when you find a maggot floating in your tea. Or when you wake up to the news that Brexit is yet again on the menu.