turquoise

Can you look at this word without seeing a sort of robin’s-egg blue in your mind?

Colour words are evocative just because of the clear visual association. But do any other associations enter your consciousness with this word? Well, they will after we’ve tasted it, if not before.

The shape of this word is long; it has two u’s and a q, and somehow those letters seem blue-greenish to me, possibly under the influence of the sense. It has a descender in the middle, no loop on it, and a small ascender at the start and a dot near the end. You could picture it as being a segment of a dressy necklace made of carved semi-precious stones. The sound of it clicks on the tongue tip and knocks at the back, but then swings around open and closes into a buzz on the tip of the tongue. Your tongue describes a full lap around your mouth – perhaps a blue rondo à la turquoise.

What other words does it taste of? Tortoise, for certain. Turpentine and turnkeys and tourniquets? Maybe. Quarters? I think so. Could you picture a turquoise sasquatch? Only for fun, in a colouring book. It makes me think of a Caribbean territory – can you imagine buying cakes and turquoise in the Turks and Caicos?

Oh, yes, Turks. Does this word make you think of Turkey? Turkish delight? Have you ever stopped to look at turquoise long enough to wonder where it came from? If you have, you have probably guessed that the stone it names is associated with Turkey. And indeed it is – Turkey is not the only place it can be found, but that’s where it was first introduced to Europe from. It can actually be found in Saxony and Cornwall too, but somehow it was not associated with those places – they had less traffic with Greece and Rome than Turkey did at the time. It can also be found in China, Australia, India, Chile, and a few other places.

But wherever it may be found, history happened in such a way as to make this stone not chinoise or indienne or even cournouaillaise. Nope, it was from Turkey, and therefore it was Turkish. Turquoise, in the French of the time. (In modern French, it would just be turc or turque.) But actually our current spelling was layered over top of an existing English word: before about 1600 it was called turkeis or turkeys or any of a few other spellings of the same sound. An archaic form turkise still survives. But after the French spelling was adopted, the pronunciation modified to match the spelling – not as the French would say it, but as the eyes of Englishmen took it: “turkwoys” or “turkoys.” Remember, these are the same people who pronounced Beauchamp like Beecham.

Well, isn’t that nice? From a term associated now with dumb birds and asinine humans and hearty feasting food we have moved on to a term that seems exclusively lapidary, that hides its origin in plain sight with exotic spelling and endotic pronunciation. It’s sort of like taking something ordinary like aluminum and making a sought-after pretty gemstone from it.

Which is (you probably guessed where I was going with that) what turquoise is. It’s a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum. Or aluminium, if you’re British. Isn’t that delightful? Less utile than aluminum foil, but even if turquoise can’t keep your food, it may do something for your luck – and as a talisman and apotropaic it is meant to foil evil and preserve good fortune.

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