Is petal a soft word?
To the eyes, there is no special light touch; it is a short word, raked from lower left to upper right, descender to ascender, formed by three vertical lines with a cross in the middle. Not pillowsome; more like a little trinket.
To the lips and tongue, it starts hard with the /p/ and, if you say it crisply, it is hard again in the middle with /t/. It does end with that soft liquid /l/; if you say it as most people do, the /t/ is just a voiced stop releasing directly to the /l/. But is that soft? Is pedal soft? Is peddle soft? How about metal, medal, or meddle? They all start with the soft /m/ and so would seem softer to say than petal, but do we think of them as soft words?
Does petal even have a soft origin? This word that anagrams to plate, does it have any hardness in its source? The Latin petalum and the Greek πέταλον petalon meant ‘petal’, yes, but also – Oxford tells us – ‘leaf of metal’, specifically (in the Septuagint) a plate of gold worn by Jewish high priests. Where did the Greek get the word from? It is based on the verb πεταννύναι petannunai ‘spread out’ or ‘be open’ and is related to the Latin patere ‘stand open’.
Perhaps, then, we need to be open to petal as an example of how something that is not so soft may nonetheless be so soft. I don’t just mean in the way Bernini’s marbles look softer than the softest human flesh; this word carries a sense of something soft, so it is by that a soft word. But there’s still more: the soft thing it names is emblematic of soft, sweet beauty (and in particular the most lovely of lips) and also of that evanescence, the withering and fading that makes the soft beauty all the more precious. And it is bolstered in art – think of the erotic orchids of Georgia O’Keeffe – and in poetry. Read these, now, and tell me how soft petal is for you:
A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn,
A flash of dew, a bee or two,
A caper in the trees,—
And I’m a rose!
—“XCIII,” Emily Dickinson
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me.
—“Now sleeps the crimson petal,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The dawn was apple-green,
The sky was green wine held up in the sun,
The moon was a golden petal between.
She opened her eyes, and green
They shone, clear like flowers undone
For the first time, now for the first time seen.
—“Green,” D.H. Lawrence
The drifting petal came to ground.
The laughter chimed its perfect round.
The broken syllable was ended.
And I, so certain and so friended,
How could I cloud, or how distress,
The heaven of your unconsciousness?
—“Dining-Room Tea,” Rupert Brooke
But when o’er wastes of lily-haunted field
The tired birds had stayed their amorous tune,
And broad and glittering like an argent shield
High in the sapphire heavens hung the moon,
Did no strange dream or evil memory make
Each tremulous petal of its blossoms shake?
—“Athanasia,” Oscar Wilde
In each green leaf a memory let lie:
The pain that follows on the heels of bliss
In every thorn; each waft of incense be a sign
For love: each petal of each rose a kiss!
—“With Roses,” Beatrix Demarest Lloyd
The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.
But I send you a cream-white rosebud
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips.
—“A White Rose,” John Boyle O’Reilly