It began innocently enough, our sense of the word spicy. The Oxford English Dictionary starts us off pleasingly, with a reference to a 1568 herbal: “the shel smelleth well, and is spycye, not onely in smell, but also in taste.”
The spice islands, the fragrance of spices, that old collection of things in the cabinet near the stove that you save just in case there’s a recipe that calls for epazote, ajwain, and fenugreek.
Spice is something we were once told made life interesting, as in that wearying definition of variety (see: life, spice of).
Readers of Lingua Franca will be familiar with Old Spice — a grooming product originally concocted for the female market — that was a fixture of the medicine cabinet for decades, a manly safeguard (not to be confused with Right Guard) against the consequences of anxiety and effort.
One sense of spicy that has been categorized as Obs. by the OED is a late 18th-century Scottish usage that somehow seems worth recuperating today.
A spicy man, circa 1768, is one “self-conceited and proud.” A few decades later, Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language gives us “proud; testy” as the meaning of spicy, and the verb to spice as “to beat; to thwack.”
The OED quickly gestures at spicey, a 17th and 18th century orthographic variant of spicy. An obscure tragedy by John Banks, entitled The Rival Kings (1677), invokes “the Phoenix burning in its spicey nest.” The phoenix, being fictitious, could well be spicey, after all.
Early modern English is, of course, notorious for its cavalier spelling (Shakspere, anyone?). As to spice, I can’t resist quoting the wonderfully named Faithful Teate (born 1626), an Irish cleric who invokes a morning of “Early Thoughts and Spicie Meditations” in his 1666 text — “A discourse grounded on Prov. 12.5 the thoughts of the righteous are right, proving our state (god-ward) to be as our thoughts are.” Faithful Teate’s son was the playwright Nahum Tate, who became England’s poet laureate.
But what about those spicie meditations? Is our state righteous? Correct? Or even right in a political sense?
There’s been a lot of beating and thwacking, much of it in a proud and testy manner, from Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary whose job it is to spin the frequently bizarre announcements from Mar-a-Lago, and occasionally Washington, into a confident and reassuring presentation of American policy.
One almost — and let me stress almost here — has a moment of compassion for Mr. Spicer when faced with the dazzling comic turn of Melissa McCarthy, whose recreation of “Spicey” has been a high point of Saturday Night Live for weeks.
McCarthy’s capacity to channel incoherent fury and venomous condescension is more than devastating satire.
It’s a recuperation of a word form — after two hundred years we’ve got spicey back — and given it an overwhelming association. Proud, testy, and perhaps much given to beating and thwacking.
Alas, unlike 16th-century spicy, our newly minted spicey doth not smell well, nor doth it have a pleasing taste.
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