Monday, May 10, 2010

One misty, moisty mutant

My friend Nicole, traveling in Zanzibar last week, saw the label on a shipping box: the umbrella symbol and, beneath it, the not unexpected advice "Store in dry place." But the rest of the admonition was not so straightforward. It read:
 OK, "the musty" must be whatever sort of mildew or mold likes to grow on damp shipping cartons in Zanzibar. But can my multilingual friends out there hazard a guess as to what word might have given rise to "mutant"? Some synonym for "growth" perhaps? Or for "spreading"? Or for "contagion," that current financial buzzword?

And while we're on the subject, do you use mildewy and musty as synonyms for the dank smell of the fungus among us? If not, what's the difference? (Food can only be moldy, as far as I know, but I tend to waffle when choosing between the other M-words. If you have a rule, please share.)


Charles Matthews said...

I guess I've always used "mildewy" about damp things and "musty" about dry things. Mildewy things are in the basement or the bathroom. Musty things are in the attic or the garage. I think it's because of the "dew" in the one, and the rhyme with "dusty" in the other.

fev said...

Is that another closet Steeleye Span fan giving the secret signal in your hed there?

Galadriel said...

I thought "musty" was the smell and "mildewy" was the state of being mildewed, complete with black spores and musty smell.

Jan said...

Hi fev,
No, my "Misty Moisty Morning" comes direct from Mother Goose, in a shorter form:

One misty moisty morning
When cloudy was the weather
I chanced to meet an old man
Clothed all in leather

He began to compliment
And I began to grin
Saying how d'ye do, etc.

I like Steeleye Span's version, but they don't say "I chanced to meet an old man" but something slightly different. Without that "chanced" (which stuck in my infant ear) it doesn't seem quite authentic, even with all 10 (or whatever) verses.

empty said...

Irrelevant etymological note: "mildew" used to mean "honeydew".

The Ridger, FCD said...

For me, too, "musty" is dry and "mildewy" is moist...

empty said...

"Musty" may sound dusty, but it is etymologically related to "moist". Then there's "fusty", which means much the same thing (same kind of smell) as "musty", and which turns out to come from a word meaning first "stave" and later the whole wine barrel. The other word "must" -- I mean the one related to wine-making -- has nothing to do with any of this.

Robin said...

Musty is a smell; mildew is more physical - visible fungus, moist state, etc.