Daily Archives: August 7, 2011

flaxseed, linseed

You’re probably familiar with Claude Débussy’s Prélude “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” If you’re not, or even if you are, I invite you to listen to a harp transcription of it played by a young woman with flaxen hair: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7v_ys5Fgqiw

Now, that harpist is named Alexandra King, but I rather like to fancy that the name of the girl with the flaxen hair is Lindsay. I’m sure it’s not – that’s hardly a French name – but it does have a certain paronomastic appeal.

I’ll explain. In English, we call the plant with the blue flowers that produces the blonde fibres flax, and its useful seeds are often called flaxseeds (you can find them in certain hot cereals – Sunny Boy and Red River come to mind – and in some multi-grain bread, among other places). But the French have a quite different name for it, as you see in the French title of Débussy’s piece: “La fille aux cheveux de lin.” Yes, lin, which we do see in some English words: linen is one, and linseed is another. Indeed: linseed, which produces that oil that is used in so many places for so many things, is the same as flaxseed.

So lin makes me think of linseed, which makes me think of Lindsay. Now, Lindsay is not related to linseed at all; it’s actually a Scottish family name (a clan which I apparently have some connection to somewhere way back there), but in fact it’s not originally Scottish; it comes from Sir Walter de Lindesay, a retainer of King David I of Scotland (1084–1153), and he brought the name from Lincolnshire – Lindsay comes from words meaning “Lincoln’s wetland.” No relation indeed – you don’t even grow flax in wetland.

But look at the difference – taste the difference, even. Flax flashes and flaps; it is dry as flint, and it rustles like clean sheets in the breeze (which linen does not). It appears to come from old Indo-European roots meaning “plait”, though some suggest the real root relates to “flay”. It is perhaps ironic that flaxseed, with its printing-press sound, and its sword-crossing x and tall grassy f, sounds somewhat like flaccid.

Linseed, by comparison, is lighter, more liquid (better suited to oil than to crunching?), perhaps even more refined-seeming. It is the more classical word; it traces to Latin linum, meaning “flax”. Flaxseed and flaxen make me think of a country girl with flying whitish hair who delights in leaping fences; linen makes me think of domestic niceties, and the sound (not the oily taste) of linseed makes me think of a genteel lass, one who sits in parlors and plays piano. Or harp – except that, of course, Alexandra is rather more like flaxseed, isn’t it? Compared to the more feathered f of flax, the l of lin is lean and lithe: just a line (oh, yes, line is directly related to lin and linen – thanks to the threads, strings, and ropes one may make from flax). The n is legs held in parallel where the x is legs crossed. And so on – of course one may discern what one desires to see to match the sense.

But remember that the sense is in fact the same, really. The words are used in different contexts, but the plant is the same. Remember too, though, that the girl’s hair looks like the fibres, not the seeds. It may be, too, that her eyes are as blue as the flowers of flax, but we don’t know. We don’t know her name, either. But we do know that she has cherry-red lips, and that she has been sitting on the flowering alfalfa (not the linoleum), singing since the fresh morning.

We know this because Débussy’s piece is based on the poem “La fille aux cheveux de lin” by Leconte de Lisle:

Sur la luzerne en fleur assise,
Qui chante dès le frais matin ?
C’est la fille aux cheveux de lin,
La belle aux lèvres de cerise.

L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.

Ta bouche a des couleurs divines,
Ma chère, et tente le baiser !
Sur l’herbe en fleur veux-tu causer,
Fille aux cils longs, aux boucles fines ?

L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.

Ne dis pas non, fille cruelle !
Ne dis pas oui ! J’entendrai mieux
Le long regard de tes grands yeux
Et ta lèvre rose, ô ma belle !

L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.

Adieu les daims, adieu les lièvres
Et les rouges perdrix ! Je veux
Baiser le lin de tes cheveux,
Presser la pourpre de tes lèvres !

L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.

I hope you will not think me lax for not providing a translation here and now. In order to do the poem real justice (rather than simply translating it word for word, which rather betrays the overall poesy) I would need more time than I can spare this evening. I suggest that you instead watch the video of Alexandra King’s rendition again, and reflect on whether you find her more to suit flaxen hair or cheveux de lin.