gypsum weed etc.

A few days ago the ADS-Lers were discussing the initially puzzling expression gypsum weed for a plant mentioned in the Gene Autry faux-cowboy song “Back in the Saddle Again” (and elsewhere). Gypsum here was quickly established to be a folk etymology, a demi-eggorn in which in an unfamiliar part of an expression — here, the jimson of jimson weed — is replaced by something familiar, without necessarily making the whole expression more comprehensible (what does the plant have to do with the mineral gypsum?). As Charlie Doyle noted, DARE gives both gypsum weed and gypsyweed as folk-etymologizing variants of jimson weed.

But that’s just the beginning of the complexities. Along with jimson ~ gypsum, there’s lowly ~ lonely. And more.

“Back in the Saddle Again”. From Wikipedia:

“Back in the Saddle Again” was the signature song of American cowboy entertainer Gene Autry. It was co-written by Autry with Ray Whitley and first released in 1939. The song was associated with Autry throughout his career and was used as the name of Autry’s autobiography in 1976.

Autry has more to his credit than this song:

Orvon Grover Autry (September 29, 1907 – October 2, 1998), better known as Gene Autry, was an American performer who gained fame as a singing cowboy on the radio, in movies, and on television for more than three decades beginning in the early 1930s. Autry was also owner of a television station, several radio stations in Southern California, and the Los Angeles/California Angels Major League Baseball team from 1961 to 1997.

… His singing cowboy movies were the first vehicle to carry country music to a national audience. In addition to his signature song, “Back in the Saddle Again”, Autry is still remembered for his Christmas holiday songs, “Here Comes Santa Claus”, which he wrote, “Frosty the Snowman”, and his biggest hit, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. (link)

Variation. The crucial two-word phrase appears in all four possible combinations. A 1968 recording by Autry, which you can listen to here:

has a first stanza with the variant that makes the most sense, lowly jimson (boldfaced here):

I’m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly jimson weed
Back in the saddle again

Two further variants were reported in an October 15th posting of reminiscences by Charlie Doyle on ADS-L:

Practically my whole life I’ve known and loved the cowboy song (albeit a faux one) “Back in the Saddle Again.”  I even heard Gene Autry himself sing it at the San Antonio Fat Stock Show when I was a youth.

In my pre-college years, I raised a few beef calves myself, and I was always amused at the couplet “Where the longhorn cattle feed / On the lonely jimson weed” — because jimson weed is poisonous (though cattle generally avoid it unless it gets accidently baled into hay).

Well, just recently I acquired a CD with an old recording of Gene Autry performing the song, and my heart was warmed:  Except, for the first time, I noticed that he sings, “Where the longhorn cattle feed / On the lonely gypsum weed.”   Yes, “gypsum” is clearly the word; he sings the stanza twice!

(Along the way he notes the oddity of having cattle feeding on jimson weed. On to that in a moment.)

A number of other sites have lowly gypsum in their printed lyrics, so all four possibilities are attested.

Lonely for lowly probably results from a mishearing — it’s an easy mondegreen — and, I believe, turns up in other song lyrics. The demi-eggcorn gypsum for jimson might also have arisen, for some speakers, in mishearing (though it could also arise from unconscious “improvement”).

At the moment I have no evidence on which of the four possibilities was what Autry and Whitley wrote in the late ’30s. But all of them could have spread by word of mouth.

Eating jimson weed. Wikipedia on the species:

Datura stramonium, known by the common names Jimson weed or datura is a plant in the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which is believed to have originated in the Americas, but is now found around the world. [other Solanaceae: potato, tomato, tomatillo, chili pepper and bell pepper, eggplant, Cape gooseberry, Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Chinese lantern, tobacco, petunia]

For centuries, datura has been used as an herbal medicine to relieve asthma symptoms and as an analgesic during surgery or bonesetting. It is also a powerful hallucinogen and deliriant, which is used spiritually for the intense visions it produces. However the tropane alkaloids which are responsible for both the medicinal and hallucinogenic properties are fatally toxic in only slightly higher amounts than the medicinal dosage, and careless use often results in hospitalizations and deaths.

As Charlie Doyle observed, cattle generally avoid eating datura — easy enough to do, since the leaves and stems of the plant have a noticeable scent (as do so many of the Solanaceae). So you wonder how Autry and Whitley got to having their longhorns feeding on the jimson weed; maybe they didn’t know a lot about the plant, or didn’t care about authenticity.

The plant. Here’s a botanist’s drawing of Datura stramonium, showing the flowers (hence common names with trumpet in them), which are usually white or off-white, but sometimes are light violet and sometimes have purple throats, and also showing the spiny fruits (hence another common name, thorn-apple):

On ADS-L, Wilson Gray wrote:

I wonder why this has never been cultivated. Its lily-like flower isn’t bad-looking. A little genetic engineering, and who knows? Its odor isn’t particularly appealing, but neither is that of the lily.

I replied that the species and its close relatives have indeed been cultivated; in fact, I grew some cultivars in Columbus OH. On the genus:

Datura is a genus of nine species of vespertine flowering plants belonging to the family Solanaceae. They are known as Angel’s Trumpets, sometimes sharing that name with the closely related genus Brugmansia. They are also sometimes called Moonflowers, one of several plant species to be so [and sometimes Devil’s Trumpet and sometimes Thorn-apple]. (link)

The genus Brugmansia is particularly notable, since its flowers are showy and usually fragrant (and the plants are fairly common ornamentals in coastal California):

Brugmansia is a genus of seven species of flowering plants in the family Solanaceae. Their large, fragrant flowers give them their common name of angel’s trumpets, a name sometimes used for the closely related genus Datura. Brugmansia are woody trees or shrubs, with pendulous, not erect, flowers, that have no spines on their fruit. Datura species are herbaceous bushes with erect (not pendulous) flowers, and most have spines on their fruit. (link)

Here’s a fairly ordinary Brugmansia candida, with white flowers (other varieties have yellow, pale orange, peach, or pink flowers):

And a striking Brugmansia sanguinea, which can grow to 8′ in two years and has striking red flowers:

Etymologies. The name Datura goes back to the Sanskrit name for the plant. Brugmansia, on the other hand, is obviously derived from a proper name, as so many botanical names are: the OED tells us that the eponym is the Dutch botanist S. J. Brugmans (1763–1819).

Along those lines, I guessed that jimson weed is Jimson weed, named after someone, perhaps an obscure English botanist, with the family name Jimson, like the central character Gulley Jimson in Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth and the wonderful 1958 film based on it (where Alec Guinness, who wrote the screenplay, played Gulley Jimson).

But no. Things are much stranger than that: Jimson weed was Jamestown weed — from Jamestown VA, where English settlers came across the plant. The OED‘s first cite is for James-Town-weed, in 1637, and then Jamestown got worn down phonologically.

So Jamestown, which made some sense — a town named, like the James River, after King James I of England — became the opaque Jimson, which was then rationalized by some people as gypsum. Semantic clarity battles phonological ease.


13 Responses to “gypsum weed etc.”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Elegantly told as always, Arnold, and even those of us who knew some of this were able to learn.

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    All of this is totally correct. Datura stramonium (Jimson weed) is a common colonizer of ruined land in the southeastern US. Supposedly “Jimson” was once “Jamestown” where the early aristocratic settlers found out the hard way that it’s poisonous.

    I’m trying to remember Gene Autry’s song from 60 years ago but I’m finding I can’t.

    50 years ago when I was a medical student who was in for a hernia repair who had be put in a separate room because he incessantly treated his asthma with “Asthmador” tobacco, a mixture of tobacco and Jimson weed;

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      You write, “I’m trying to remember Gene Autry’s song from 60 years ago but I’m finding I can’t.”

      This is guaranteed to be hopeless. Unless you are a truly rare memory phenom, your memory for the exact details of things you heard in the past is utterly undependable.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Larry Horn on ADS-L:

    Ah, someone else who fell in love with the Alec Guinness character, Gulley Jimson, in “The Horse’s Mouth”! I remember being inspired to read the book after seeing the movie and enjoying it too, but missing the paintings themselves that featured so wonderfully in the movie. Thanks for the background on Jamestown > Jimson > gypsum. I didn’t know “Jamestown” hiding in there; same sort of loss of transparency as in “bedlam”, “maudlin”, etc.

    Ah yes, the paintings; they do a lot to make the movie work.

    I decided not to throw in bedlam/maudlin/etc., since there were so many threads already. But definitely relevant. (By the way, do we have a name for these opacifying phonological reductions?)

  4. h.s. gudnason Says:

    And the Firesign Theater variation: Back from the shadows again. Out where an Injun’s your friend. Where the vegetables are green, and you can pee into the stream, we’re back from the shadows again.

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    Charlie Doyle on ADS-L on the 18th:

    I suppose in the “lonely” versions, the epithet could be regarded as a hypallage–transferring the idea of ‘lonesomeness’ from the life of a cowboy to a plant located in the scene.

    Good idea, making it semantically as well as phonologically plausible.

  6. arnold zwicky Says:

    A footnote about my growing datura in my Columbus garden: the rest of my household thought the flowers were lovely, but just *hated* the idea of having such a demon “death plant” in our backyard, so eventually they persuaded me to give up on the plants.

  7. Jeff Prucher Says:

    Regarding cows eating jimson weed in song, there’s a verse of Ring-around-the-rosy that begins “The cows are in the meadow / Eating buttercups.” Buttercups also being toxic to cows. Poor cows.

  8. Valentime’s Day « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] gypsum weed for jimson weed (link) […]

  9. John D. Gubernat Says:

    Thank you. I also have been a big fan of Gene Autry since my boyhood in the 1950’s. Today I played “Back In The Saddle Again and was wondering what the “lonely gypsom weed” that the “Long Horn cattle” were feeding on. So I looked it up and was surprised to find that it is poisonous and also called ‘stinkweed.’ So, why would cattle feed on it. As I researched further, I came across your most thorough and interesting post.

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