odalisque

Were you as enchanted as I was by Delacroix’s rendering of the Sardanapalian odalisque being held unwilling to her early demise (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Delacroix_sardanapalus_1828_950px.jpg)?

I am assuming you know the word odalisque. It is possible, however, that you do not. Everyone must encounter this word first sometime, and it may be fairly late in life, odalisques not being standard features of the modern quotidian. My recollection of first encountering the word was as the title of a dance piece. Since I am a lover of modern dance, especially the abstract kind, I do not think that even at the end of the piece I had a clear idea of what an odalisque was.

The word does not lead you to its referent, does it? With its strong taste of basilisk and obelisk it seems more primed to turn you to stone; with its oda it may make you think of counting miles (that would actually be odo, as in odometer, but the hint is there). But it also has that fancy French ending… not quite esque, but, one may say, somewhat esqueesque. But, now, the esquire may enquire as to what it is esque – or ish, since the old English cognate of esque is ish. Is it model-ish? Perhaps. Especially if the model is risqué.

The truth is that the lisque in this word is from a suffix, but a Turkish one: lık. It expresses function, sort of as English er or ary might when added to a noun. And oda is a room – in this case, a chamber in a harem. An odalisque is an odalık, a woman in a Turkish harem (or any other kind of harem, more broadly) – originally, a slave, a servant to the concubines, a chambermaid to the ladies; in more common usage now, it serves up an image of a concubine herself. The s was added in the French and English because it seemed to make sense – it matched a pattern. Words are our harem, and we will abduct and tattoo and dress them as we will. (That’s much better than doing the same to humans.)

It may have been odious to have been an odalisque (though it may, for some, have been better than the alternatives), but this word is not odious, the resonance notwithstanding. The /l/ in the heart in particular is lithe and lissome; the /s/ slips as silk sliding to the tiles; the que is pure ornamentation, a simple /k/ as in kiss but with a curly q, and the rest is silence. The contexts of this word always bring it forth with a flavour of the exotic (pure orientalism), of a place far away and a time long ago; painters have liked odalisques because they give an excuse to present the nude or half-nude female form in an alluring context.

We would not tolerate the keeping of odalisques now, but we have idealized it then: a beautiful woman, dressed lavishly or lavishly nude, ready to do as the sultan bids, even to the point of fraudulently altering official documents – oh, sorry, wrong Oda, and sorry for the image. You may wish to erase it from your mind with the results of a Google image search on odalisque. You know already what you will see: models, risqué, but great painterly art. Brace yourself for an ingress of Ingres.

Thanks again to Allan Jackson for suggesting today’s word.

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4 responses to “odalisque

  1. Pingback: Sardanapalian | Sesquiotica

  2. “I am assuming you know the word odalisque. It is possible, however, that you do not. Everyone must encounter this word first sometime, and it may be fairly late in life, odalisques not being standard features of the modern quotidian.”

    I wonder what male version of ‘Odalisque’ would have been called in Ottoman empire! For better, or for worse, I encountered this word fairly early in my life!
    :)

  3. counting miles (that would actually be odo, as in odometer, but the hint is there)

    This made me wonder whether the prefix odo actually meant – or referred to – miles, in which case, I wondered what a measurer of kilometres would be called (I like k’mometer, myself). As it turns out, odo comes from the Greek word Hodos, meaning way, so it can refer to either unit.

    What struck me as weird, though, is that the entry in the Online Etymological Dictionary said “see cede“.

    Say what? So, since it was a link, I did go see it.

    Turns out cede doesn’t come directly via Hodos, but shares a common Proto-Indo-European ancestor, *ked.

    Man, but language can be weird.

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