Life Suckles


A word I’ve been thinking a lot to myself lately is “nourish.” This surprises me, because until the beginning of the month it had been on an internal list I evidently maintain called “words that are beautiful but have ruined by Real Simple (et al).”

But then I got back from arting camp and found that in the following swirl of intense work and away-from-homeness, I could barely keep myself fed, rested, and aware of all the love in my life, and it was making me want to do nothing but nap and cry. So I tried to make specific plans for getting my needs met, and because titles help me, I titled this Minimum Mammalian Nourishment. 

This came out of a talk with Erin Forbes, who in addition to being a great friend does amazing work, some of which involves problematizing “human” as what we should all aspire to in terms of categorization, because “human” as a distinction was made up by a bunch of European men who didn’t mean for it to apply to anyone else in the first place, so fuck them, they can keep it (personally, I tend to use “mammal” now). Anyway: in telling me about a particular posthumanist philosopher named Michael Marder who works on “plant-thinking”, she also gave me the gift of this sentence from him: “All living beings…participate in the act of being, to the extent that they are able to be nourished, to share nutrition as a common mode of being.”

I was well-nourished today: a hike to waterfalls, a salad with sublime dressing, all with chosen family, one of whom is 9 months old and the best smiler I know. It’s always in the shower that the good word questions come, and as I washed off the hike and reflected on how nice and nourishing it was to have done something new to me, in nature, with people I love, I finally thought: wait, where the hell does “nourish” come from? (Indeed: Where does any -ish word come from? Brandish? Varnish? Polish? Why the ish? And –ish as in “kinda”? Do they somehow share an origin story??)

And as always, I found out things that made whole corners of the world make just a little more sense, because check this out:


There’s a lot there, but I’m most interested in the unexpected but of course connection to “nurse,” and how suddenly the terrains mapped by “nurse” (the job Rio does) and “nurse” (how Maria feeds little Perry) overlap in a clear way. To nourish and to nurse is to provide with means of support and increase, in whatever life stage or situation you happen to be in.

And let’s be clear: both definitely originate with breasts. It’s so beautiful. You can piece that together from what’s above but it’s even easier in the Online Etymology Dictionary entry:

nourish (v.) Look up nourish at Dictionary.comlate 13c., “to bring up, nurture” (a child, a feeling, etc.), from Old French norriss-, stem of norrir “raise, bring up, nurture, foster; maintain, provide for” (12c., Modern French nourrir), from Latin nutrire “to feed, nurse, foster, support, preserve,” from *nutri (older form of nutrix “nurse”), literally “she who gives suck,” from PIE *nu- (from root *(s)nau- “to swim, flow, let flow,” hence “to suckle;” see nutriment) + fem. agent suffix. Related: Nourished;nourishing.

A further little nugget was waiting in “nurse”:

nurse (n.1) Look up nurse at Dictionary.com12c., nurrice “wet-nurse, foster-mother to a young child” (modern form from late 14c.), from Old French norrice “foster-mother, wet-nurse, nanny” (source of proper name Norris) [You might know I’m married to a nourishing someone with just that proper name], from Late Latin *nutricia “nurse, governess, tutoress,” noun use of fem. of Latin nutricius “that suckles, nourishes,” from nutrix (genitive nutricis) “wet-nurse,” from nutrire “to suckle” (see nourish). Meaning “person who takes care of sick” in English first recorded 1580s. 

So that’s great: more credit to breasts were credit is due.

But what of -ish, the suffix?

-ish Look up -ish at Dictionary.comadjectival word-forming element, Old English -isc “of the nativity or country of,” in later use “of the nature or character of,” from Proto-Germanic suffix *-iska- (cognates: Old Saxon -isk, Old Frisian -sk, Old Norse -iskr, Swedish and Danish -sk, Dutch -sch, Old High German -isc, German -isch, Gothic -isks), cognate with Greek diminutive suffix -iskos. In its oldest forms with altered stem vowel (French, Welsh). The Germanic suffix was borrowed into Italian and Spanish (-esco) and French (-esque). Colloquially attached to hours to denote approximation, 1916.  The -ish in verbs (abolish, establish, finish, punish, etc.) is a mere terminal relic from the Old French present participle.

So that’s mostly as you’d expect AND ties up the -ish verb question, but there’s not much to illuminate hidden corners of the world. Except that on the same page in the OeD was something I’d never ever seen before:

ish kabibble Look up ish kabibble at Dictionary.comslang phrase meaning, more or less, “I don’t care, I don’t worry,” 1913, of unknown origin, but perhaps derived from Yiddish nisht gefidlt. Said to have been popularized by comedienne Fanny Brice (1891-1951), but earliest references do not mention her.

Not to be all whatever whatever, but I don’t often come across words I’ve never ever even heard. And this is a such a grand one! It also turns out that a comedian and cornet player adopted it as his name, and you can find old recordings (he’s sometimes credited as Merwyn Bogue, sometimes Ish Kabbible), including this one of an Irving Berlin song, which I won’t oversell but will tell you has in the description “with added kazoo.”  

Enjoy; may it be as a breast to you!


PS: whoa, so I haven’t written about a word since…well, since. Since all the everything of the spring. And I was really feeling a way about that, and worried about both writing and not-writing and just everything ( I didn’t know to just ish kabbible yet). In talking with Bill about it, I said, “I don’t want it to just be like, ‘here’s this sad lady going ‘hey, didja know this??’” and he said with such love and encouragement “but that’s basically all good writing” and I just laughed forever.  Now that’s a properly nurseful Norris!

It also doesn’t hurt that Lidia Yuknavitch offers things like this at the exact best time:

remind me what you are waiting for? just make your fucking art. there is no other now.


4 thoughts on “Life Suckles

  1. Sarah…you are So missed here in the deep rurals!! LOVE Ish Kabbill’s last sentance of the song about redheads…being one myself (though not entirely by NATURE…however, I was a dark brunette with red highlights, so, I can claim that I am not entirely an imposter!). It sounds like your life in the gorgeous Ashville is rewarding. Where are y’all living…did you buy a house in the town? Sure wish y’all could come back for a visit…maybe N.Y.’s Eve for out traditional “concert” and pot luck? Many blessings to you and your “Nurse Norris”! :-)


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