Frustules, not Frustrating

My friend Jerry, a scientist who studies Lake Erie algae, visited the GED class where I tutor to talk about his work. I learned a lot about his research, and I also learned some new words, which I’ve had fun investigating.

A diatom that resembles 16 mm. film. Who knew?

Jerry studies diatoms, one-celled plants that have a silica shell called a frustule. I rushed home to check out this word’s etymology and was gratified to find an interesting history. A frustum is a little bite or piece of something, both in English and in Latin, and the -ule ending (Latin frustulum), called a diminutive, makes it even littler and cuter. The frustules of diatoms are so cute and so little, you need a microscope to see them, and, fortunately, Jerry brought one today to allow us to gaze upon them.

Looking further, I discovered that the root of these words is the verb fruor, which means enjoy, as you would enjoy a little bite of food.

So frustule is related to the words fruit, fructose, and frugal, all derived from the verb fruor. (But not frustrate, from frustra, meaning “in vain.”)

Then I grew curious about diatom and found it means cut in two, because diatoms appear to be in two parts. Each one has two thecae, or coverings. So a theca (and I’m going to share this first-declension singular and plural with my students tomorrow — theca and thecae) is a shield or container in Latin, borrowed from the original Greek word. Hence the words bibliotheca or bibliotheque for a library (holder of books) but also — wait for it — cinematheque (holder of movies!)

As my husband John, director of the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, points out, everything in the end comes back to the Cinematheque.

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2 Responses to Frustules, not Frustrating

  1. Kathy says:

    My students are amused to learn that “disco” in Latin means “learn.” The root of discotheque “disco” is Greek for “disc,” i.e., “record.” Discotheques, as you point out, went the way of vinyl discs!

  2. Lisa Marin says:

    So was a discotheque a holder of discos? What’s a disco? What happened to them? They seem to have disappeared.

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