Monday, March 8, 2010

Word of the week- scorbutico

Our word of the week has an amusing etymology. Scorbutico is an adjective to describe someone who is difficult, irritable, moody and unpleasant.

It comes from the noun scorbuto, scurvy. This is a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, which was first noticed when it was found that Brit sailors (deprived of fresh fruits and veggies during their long voyages) got better upon introducing limes to their ship's provisions (hence the nickname "limeys.")

In fact "scurvy" was one of the favorite insults of Shakespeare, who was a master of the put-down, among many other things. The clinical picture of scurvy does in fact include mental symptoms. But while it is intuitive that the British might have long suffered from this deficiency problem (their fair land not being filled with orange and lemon trees), it's hard to understand how the Italians could have.

First of all, citrus grows abundantly in the South, except for certain micro-climates in the North. Many of the contadini (peasants) in the North and Center were malnourished both due to extreme poverty and ignorance, and paradoxically, a low estimation of fruit and vegetables precisely because they were so common- just as the early settlers to the Massachusetts colony looked down on lobster. The vitamin B-deficiency pellagra comes from the Italian for "rough skin," one of its characteristics, along with psychological disturbances. Many of these poor people ate staple foods only, such as polenta from refined corn. It is probable that whoever had one deficiency disease would have others, leading to poor overall physical and mental health.