These ramblings were prompted by a mistake the other day on the newspaper letters page I edit. I was on holiday at the time and I was annoyed that no sub-editor or reviser had spotted the error before it hit the press.
The letter-writer’s error was such a common one – referring to something as a “damp squid” instead of a “damp squib”. I usually laugh before changing it.
I would think most squid are damp in their natural environment, although admittedly a little drier when served up as battered calamari. My favourite variation of this dish is Chinese salt & pepper squid… yummy.
When I think of squid I always remember a great holiday I spent in the Greek islands as a student in the 1970s. There were many beautiful squid and octopus images in the Minoan art of Crete. Um, I guess most of them were octopuses, come to think of it…
Commonly confused, the squid and octopus are both cephalopods (meaning “head-feet” in Greek) but are quite different – an octopus has eight arms while a squid has eight arms plus two feeding tentacles.
In an octopus the blobby head and legs are joined seamlessly together, while the common Mediterranean squid (Loligo vulgaris) has a triangular head section with wings, the whole tube reinforced along its length inside with a clear quill that looks like plastic. This holds the black ink the creature shoots out when defending itself. It has recently become fashionable to eat spaghetti blackened with this ink.
Most of the cephalopods produce ink, although the colour varies. Our brown “sepia” ink bears the Latin name of the cuttlefish from which it is obtained.
Cephalopods are molluscs which have lost their shells. Sorry! That sounds as if they have been careless. I mean they have evolved to have only a small internal shell or none at all – except the nautilus, a wondrous creature that sails the ocean in its own shell boat (nautilus is Greek for “sailor”).
When I found this image of a “glass squid” I was also reminded of the wonderful glass art of Victorian father and son Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
The Blaschkas’ early works depicted aquatic fauna and were supplied to museums worldwide during the latter half of the 19th century. I was enthralled by them when, as a teenager, I first saw them at the National Museum of Wales.
Production of the glass animals ended in 1890 when the Blaschkas were offered an exclusive contract to supply plant models for the Botanical Museum of Harvard University in the United States.
They did do squid, but these are a bit unprepossessing. My favourite is not a squid but a wonderful multi-coloured glass Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish.
But back to “damp squid”, or as it should be, a “damp squib”. A squib is a small explosive charge – and if it’s damp it won’t do very much in the way of exploding. That’s why a “damp squib” refers to something rather disappointing.
I always think of those cardboard fireworks that fail to go off and which you MUST not return to in order to check, in case they blow up in your face.
I must admit I do like this wonderful “squibbing” display that has become an annual event as part of the Guy Fawkes celebrations in Bridgwater, Somerset. An excellent tradition!