I lately started reading The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by my friend and poetry mentor Molly Peacock. On pages 6 and 7, I read the following passage:
The work Mrs. Delaney labeled her “first essay,” the Scarlet Geranium and Lobelia cardinalis, resembles two pressed flowers in ladylike quietude, but a bully of inspiration begins to burst forth in the ones she began to create after that, muscular, vibrant, petiolate.
Petiolate! This is surely a delicious, erudite text, the way it slips in a word so exotic it is erotic, so technical it is sexual. How can you not be seduced by prose that simply by the way tosses in, as though an ordinary old friend, a word that makes your eyes pop a little (“This is George, this is Margo, and you know Cate Blanchett, yes?”). Four syllables, crisp – those voiceless stops – but with a soft little lick in the middle as of a flower petal.
Petal! These are cut-out paper flowers Molly is talking about. They have petals and so are petiolate. No? Indeed, no. Petiolate means “having petioles”. And petioles are? The stalks by which leaves are attached to plants. The word actually does not come from petal; it is a modified form of peciolus and traces back to Latin pes “foot”.
Well! Something’s afoot! This word has turned over a new leaf. Now, petals are modified leaves, but what we need to remember is that a petiole – also called a petiolus – is that stalk that connects a leaf to the stem. Petiole is also a word for the thin connector that holds the last segment of an insect’s body onto the rest.
Does petiolate seem somehow etiolated by this information – bleached by deprivation of light? No need to be petulant. Its use here simply means that these paper pictures of plants show the sinews, the stems, the necks and stalks that hold the juice of life of the plants: the parts you don’t take notice of every day. Look, something new! How could you communicate that without using a word that is also not part of the quotidian lexis? How communicate the thrill of the detail – the necklike connecting stalks connecting to the stalks, suddenly seen as though that gorgeous girl (or guy) of an instant slipped off the turtleneck – other than with a word crisp, liquid, lean, long, and (for most) arcane, abstruse?