Toxic shock

Near the end of the first volume of the David Hawkes translation of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone the hero, Bao-yu, is wandering about his family’s private park and runs across his nephew Jia Lan, who is clutching a tiny bow with which he is hunting deer.

“I’ve got no reading to do today,” said Jia Lan, “and I don’t like to hang about doing nothing, so I thought I’d practise my archery and equitation.”

“Goodness! You’d better not waste time jawing, then,” said Bao-yu, and left the young toxophilite to his pursuits.

While the Rong-guo family are a well-educated elite, Hawkes doesn’t spice his translation with a lot of fancy or archaic vocabulary. Nevertheless there were two words in this brief passage that I was unfamiliar with. In both cases the meaning was clear, but I went to the dictionary to see if I was missing anything.

I had a good idea what “equitation” referred to, and to be fair it is a word that, while not commonly known, is frequently used by people involved in equestrian sports. It just refers to the art of horse riding (or, more technically, a rider’s position while mounted) and I think what confused me was the fact that Jia Lan is not riding a horse while out hunting.

“Toxophilite,” on the other hand, really threw me. It’s another word where knowledge of Greek would have helped, as the Greek “toxon” means a bow, while “philia” is love or affection. So Jia Lan, who is carrying a bow, is a student or lover of archery. The actual English word is a relatively modern coinage, invented by Roger Ascham in a 16th-century book on longbow archery (the first printed book in English on archery, as it happens) titled Toxophilus. It was later adopted by an18th-century English archery society but never seems to have caught on. Archery itself wasn’t really mainstream in the modern era.

Anyway, from the context the meaning was clear and I really didn’t need to look it up, but I’m glad I did. One trivia sidebar I found online gave more background:

Today, toxophilite is a rarely used word but often occurs in vocabulary games and puzzles and in spelling bees. A more ubiquitous descendant of toxon is “toxic.” Toxic is an Anglicization of Latin’s word for “poison,” toxicum, which originally meant “poison for arrows” and is a borrowing from Greek toxikon, meaning “arrow.”

I thought this was interesting. It seems the line gets blurry between poison and bows when doling out the prefixes. Toxo- can be used to refer to poisons in some English words, though the preference seems to be for toxico-. An expert in poisons is a toxicologist, so presumably an expert archer would be a toxologist, though that word doesn’t seem to exist. “Toxology” for “archery” is listed by dictionaries as very rare, and is usually assumed by spell-check programs to be a misspelling of “toxicology.”

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