Daily Archives: July 26, 2010

styrax

Ladies, this is the word you wish your man could be. Look at the beginning: it’s a saint (st). Look again: it’s no stranger to the street (st again). Do you see a sty? This is no chauvinist pig word. It’s the word of a hero, an Ajax, the Greek warrior, who really cleaned up in battle, like a comet. You see the swords crossing and clashing: x, y. You hear them: /st/, /ks/. Now he’s the Trojan Astyanax. Now he’s Orpheus, crossing the Styx to bring you back. And when you look back at him to check out his muscled thorax, you see a master of the masculine (xy) arts. This is a man who keeps snakes on his tie racks. His pet bird is an archaeopteryx. Give him a golden goblet and he drains it as if it were styrene. He doesn’t pay tax. He even broke syntax. Now he’s a woodsman, holding a sharp ax. What kind of ax? Try a sax. Look again: it’s a hyrax. And it’s eating a bunch of snowbell flowers.

What’s snowbell? It’s a shrub of the genus Styrax. Yes, Styrax is the name of a genus of shrubbery, suitable for pleasing the Knights Who Say Ni! For all I know, it is also pleasing food for the hyrax, which, though it sounds like it should be some kind of heroic horse, is a little furry round creature that weighs about five to ten pounds. (But isn’t it so cuuuute!) But, well, things aren’t always as they sound. The classicists among you will already have thought, “Astyanax wasn’t a warrior – he was killed in infancy!” Likewise, what styrax names is, well, not quite as manly as all that.

But if it sounds like styrene, that’s because styrene is named after it – but actually after levant styrax, an unrelated plant (well, they thought it was related), from which styrene was first extracted. There is some stryene in styrax, too. That’s not its greatest historical usage, however; it has been used for scents for a long time. The resin can be used as incense, or to add a vanilla-like scent; the oil has a woody, balsamic aroma. Of course, it also varies by which of the plants in the genus Styrax you’re getting the scent from – or whether you’re getting it from Liquidambar orientalis, i.e., that levant styrax again.

Anyway, styrax comes to us from Greek, if you hadn’t guessed: στυραξ, also borrowed into Latin as storax, which has also become another English name for styrax.

And is it part of the formula for Old Spice? Dude, I have no idea.