Are Quarks Made of Curd Cheese? The Link between Quantum Physics & a Slavic Food Speciality
#language & literature
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Ever wondered about the nature of the universe and the role of quarks? Now you can find out what links the word for the most elementary particle in the universe with the name of the ancient Slavic food specialty. And why it's James Joyce.
You have surely heard about quarks. In theoretical physics, they are a term denoting an elementary particle – a fundamental constituent of matter. The name itself was first used around 1963 by Murray Gell-Mann, one of the two physicists who posited the quark model.
Gell-Mann later recollected that he had come across the word in one of his ‘occasional perusals’ of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. He found it in the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ (p. 383) and adopted it for his theory. Interestingly, he preferred to pronounce it as ‘kwork’ – for which he had his own good arguments.
The scientist believed that the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ might be a distorted version of ‘Three quarts for Mister Mark’, in which case the pronunciation ‘kwork’ would not be totally unjustified.
While Gell-Mann might have had his arguments for linking the origin of the Joycean phrase with a call for drinks at the bar, especially since the author was a renowned drinker, the majority of Joyce scholars are inclined to suspect an altogether different call behind this Wake fragment.
According to this hypothesis, the vendor's cry which Joyce had likely picked up in some German market place (he was living in Germany at the time) sounded more like ‘Drei Mark für muster Quark!’ which can be translated as ‘Three Marks for excellent curd cheese!’.
Quark is the German word for curd cheese, but it also just happens to be one of the very few early loan words in Old German taken from a Western Slavic language, very likely from Lower Sorbian or Polish (twaróg).
The etymology of this Polish word goes back to the Proto-Slavic *tvarogb, which in turn goes back to *tvoriti (in Polish: tworzyć), meaning to make, create, form. This etymology is explained through the specific process necessary to produce twaróg - which was made by warming the formed soured milk. (You can observe the same linguistic process in the formation of the French word for cheese, fromage, which comes the Latin formare, i.e. 'to form'.)
This means that quarks are, after all, made of curd cheese. At least linguistically. It seems like this is not the worst etymology for a word that denotes the very basic element that forms our reality. It would also mean that the Polish language and Polish twaróg are closer to the core of the English lexicon and reality itself than one would have thought.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, June 2016