Scent of a word

Posted in Figuratively Speaking, On writing at 9:42 am by Marion


For some of us, words get under our skin.

(I guess that makes words hypodermic? And the condition hypodermia? Hypo from the Greek hupo, under, and dermic, true skin or dermis.)

See what I mean?

When I was in graduate school and reading lots of French books, I also learned a lot about my own language. Often I came across a translated word I’d never heard of before.

Such was the case with antimacassar.

Over time, I forgot the word … until one day recently, I remembered the word … but forgot it … at the same time.

It was madenning. I tried to Google search the word, to no avail.

My memory of the word was triggered, Proust-like, by the word macadam (or should that be maca-madeleine-adam?) which refers to a type of road material made of broken stones of equal size, used as a base beneath asphalt.

Then, out of the blue last week, I’m wrapping up a Scott Turow novel … and there it is!! My long-lost word! Antimacassar!

Antimacassar refers to a piece of cloth placed over the back of a chair to protect it from grease and dirt, or as ornament.


It derives from anti plus macassar … or Macassar oil … which was used in the past to give men flat, shiny hair, as was the style in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries … oh yes, and even today (Brylcreem anyone?).

It was found in Makassar, a place in the Indonesian islands of the South Pacific by Portuguese sailors.

Macassar comes from the fragrant ylang-ylang tree … absolutely one of my favorite scents … and when the ylang-ylang blossoms are macerated, or broken up, in coconut oil, we have macassar.

Now, like the reunited lovers at the conclusion of Jane Erye (or better yet, Wuthering Heights) I have at last found my forgotten word.

Which leads to the question: Does anyone else become so obsessed with words? Is this an illness of some kind?

A special holiday edition of Fiction Daily!

1 Comment

  1. Malcolm R. Campbell said,

    December 19, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Some of us still remember going to grandmother’s house and having to put up with these little doily things on the arms and headrests of chairs. Who knew then that they had such impressive names?