Yesterday (while working on my “Plant families” posting, on the rose family) I came across the Wikipedia page for the agreeable plant Cotoneaster, which sent me on a complex journey through pronunciation and etymology, botanical taxonomy, English morphology, lexical semantics, and the pragmatics of expressions of resemblance.

First, the plant, starting with the species Cotoneaster salcifolius, the willow-leaved cotoneaster, shown here blooming in the spring and then sporting its red berries, which last through the winter (and provide cheering color then):



On the species, from Wikipedia:

Cotoneaster salicifolius, the Willow-leaved Cotoneaster [Latin salix ‘willow’], is a drought-tolerant, evergreen to semi-evergreen, low-lying, small to medium sized shrub with an arched branching habit.

… This plant has over 30 cultivars which range from tiny groundcovers to large shrubs

Now up to the genus level, again from Wikipedia:

Cotoneaster /kəˈtoʊniːˈæstər/ is a genus of flowering plants [woody shrubs and small trees] in the rose family, Rosaceae, native to the Palaearctic region (temperate Asia, Europe, north Africa), with a strong concentration of diversity in the genus in the mountains of southwestern China and the Himalayas. They are related to hawthorns (Crataegus), firethorns (Pyracantha), photinias (Photinia) and rowans (Sorbus).

… Cotoneasters are very popular garden shrubs, grown for their attractive habit and decorative fruit. Many are cultivars, some of hybrid origin

Pronunciation and etymology. From the spelling, you might think the name was pronounced like “cotton easter”, and some gardeners have pronounced (and then spelled) it like that, but in fact the name has five syllables, with accents on syllables 2 and 4, reflecting its etymology. From NOAD2:

ORIGIN   mid 18th cent.: modern Latin, from Latin cotoneum (see quince) + -aster

That’s Latin cotóne-um ‘quince’, accented on the second syllable and denoting the small tree Cydonia oblonga in the rose family, bearing an edible pome fruit similar to a pear. Plus the suffix -áster ‘inferior, a poor imitation’, from a Latin suffix Michael Quinion’s affixes site identifies as signifying incomplete resemblance. I’ll return to the suffix in a moment.

Botanical taxonomy. The Wikipedia entry continues:

Depending on the species definition used, there are between 70 and 300 different species of Cotoneaster, with many … microspecies treated as species by some authors, but only as varieties by others.

As I noted yesterday, in something of an understatement, “taxonomists disagree as to how taxa are circumscribed”.

English morphology: the suffix -aster: More from Quinion’s affixes site:

Most [of these] terms are rare or outdated. The only one much found is poetaster (Latin poeta, poet), a person who writes inferior poetry. Rarer examples include criticaster, a minor or inferior critic; philosophaster, a petty philosopher; and politicaster, a petty, feeble, or contemptible politician. Oleaster (Latin olea, olive tree), a small shrub sometimes called the wild olive or Russian olive, was so called because its fruits are like those of the olive. [And then there’s Cotoneaster.] … The ending is not active.

OED2 adds astrologaster ‘incompetent astrologer (derogatory)’ and the wonderful grammaticaster ‘petty or inferior grammarian (used in contempt)’, first cited from Ben Jonson. A number of these –aster words deserve to be revived, and new ones added. I propose: divinaster ‘a contemptible or inferior religious authority’ (with wide applicability in the modern world); and usageaster ‘a petty or inferior usag(e)ist’ (usag(e)ist in the sense ‘purveyor of usage advice’, as in the write-up for my project “Adventures in the Advice Trade” (here), not in the sense ‘scholar of (actual) usage’, like E. Ward Gilman of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionay of English Usage).

The pragmatics of resemblance expressions. In –aster, we have an element with resemblance semantics: the denotatum is like an X. But, though simple resemblance semantics is quite common — in resembloid composites, for instance (many, many examples on this blog) and in uses of the elements –like, –ish, and –style — these constructs often convey additional content, and -aster is specifically devoted to negative (dismissive or deprecative) uses: the denotatum is like an X, but deficient as an X; it won’t really do as an X.

Some resembloid composites are frequently used this way: Boston marriage, fool’s gold, etc. And more complex constructs as well. Here’s on the idiom A poor man’s something:

Something or someone that can be compared to something or someone else, but is not as good is a poor man’s version; a writer who uses lots of puns but isn’t very funny would be a poor man’s Oscar Wilde.

Resemblance expressions can also be used positively (expansively or evasively), as I reported in my recent San Marzano tomato posting, where San Marzano style was used to convey that the tomatoes in question were admittedly not actually San Marzano tomatoes, but they were good enough; the denotata are technically not Xs, but they will do.

Advertisements for mozzarella (cheese) in the U.S. take a similar route, but without the admission. In this country, cheese is advertised as mozzarella, period, even though it’s made from (pasteurized) cow’s milk rather than (raw) Italian buffalo milk. On the other hand, cheese similar to mozzarella but made from goat’s milk is advertised as mozzarella-style cheese.

One further step: mozzarella-style can be used for non-dairy foodstuffs: dairy-free Mozzarella Style Shreds, Mozzarella Style Chunks, Mozzarella Sheese, mozzarella-style Chreese, mozzarella-style vegan cheese. The names are intended to convey that these products are, admittedly, not actually cheese, but they’ll do. (In my experience, this claim is grossly inflated.)

Resemblance lexical items. In addition to resembloid composites and morphological elements denoting resemblance, there are of course lexical items, nouns and adjectives, with resemblance as part of their semantics; some of these (like forgery and phony) are explicitly negative in content, while others (like replica and simulated) can be used either neutrally or negatively:

[model] an imitation of a sailor’s hat: copy, simulation, reproduction, replica; counterfeit, forgery

[model] imitation ivory: artificial, synthetic, simulated, man-made, manufactured, ersatz, substitute; mock, sham, fake, faux, bogus, knockoff, pseudo, phony

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