Some mysterious algorithm recently offered me a post about inosculation (in-ahs-cue-lay-shun), a naturally occurring grafting of trees. One tree seeming reaches out to another, and they grow into each other. They become conjoined organisms sharing nutrients and circulation.
All very interesting natural science, of course, but what you, as a reader of this blog, are no doubt wondering is, “Where does that word come from?” Inosculation derives from osculum, the Latin noun meaning “kiss.”
This history leads, as happens so often, to other interesting facts. Previous posts have explored linguistic diminutives, that is, words modified to express smallness or endearment. For example, a drum major struts in front of the band authoritatively, while a majorette, though skilled and athletic, is usually pretty and feminine. The –ette makes her so. We may dislike a cat, but a kitty? Not so much. Certain suffixes serve to make the ordinary noun small, unthreatening, and even charming.
So it is for osculum. It builds on the Roman word for “mouth,” that is, os. The -culum suffix makes the mouth small and cute and pursed. A kiss, in other words, is a “little mouth.” (Analogously, a homunculus is a “little man.”) In addition, I learned that sponges breathe through their oscula, their little mouths.
This article from the University of New Hampshire shows lovely images of tree osculation. It explains that when branches rub against each other, the bark wears away and then grows scar tissue, which can form a bond between the trees. This connection can even occur between trees of different species.
To my delight, this source also recounts the mythological story of Baucis and Philemon, one of my favorites told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. The devoted elderly couple shared their meager resources with the gods Jupiter and Mercury, visiting in disguise. As a reward, the gods granted them the gift of dying together and spending eternity as two connected trees. Reading this beautiful tale, I have always imagined two trees with their trunks intertwined, but now I love imagining a deeper dependent connection. Inosculated trees share resources and support one another, as Baucis and Philemon would lovingly do throughout time.
The article also cites Rembrandt’s painting of the couple hosting the gods, which resides in the National Gallery in Washington, and works by the artist Arthur Rackham and the poet Thom Gunn, who calls the couple’s embrace a “wooden hug.” Wrong etymology, but lovely image nonetheless.