Doesn’t this look like the name of some Egyptian pharaoh or Babylonian king? Or perhaps some writing left on a wall by a disembodied hand that was a bit too drunk? (If that doesn’t make sense, look up mene mene tekel upharsin.) Or maybe what Neneh Cherry and Pharrell Williams would be called if they got together?
Or it could just be a nice soft word with white shoulders clothed in light linen. It seems pleasing enough. Even French in its way. To me it does, at least, because the first time I noticed it, it was spelled nénuphar. It was on a bottle of liquid hand soap. The French part. (Hey, we’re in Canada here.)
Twice a year, we go to the One-of-a-Kind Craft Show, and we have some favourite booths we stop at (out of the something like 1000 that are there). I like Peppermaster, for instance – I always taste their latest and hottest sauces. I get my cufflinks etc. from BBJ (Barbie’s Basement Jewellery). Aina buys dresses from if and Dinh Bá. And we buy our hand soap (and hand cream) from Lovefresh. It’s not as cheap as the mass-market stuff, but it’s more responsibly made and it sure is nice.
One of their kinds of hand soap is Nénuphar. Well, that’s what it is in French. In English, it’s Water Lily.
Yes, nenuphar – which is also an English word once you lose the accent on the e – means ‘water lily’. It’s not the kind of soap we buy the most of (grapefruit and lavender and lemon grass are more to our taste) but it’s nice for our smaller bathroom that guests go into. It has that super flowery smell. I mean, lilies, right? It makes me think of that perfume, White Shoulders. Also funerals. Especially if you open the bottle and sniff the great clear mass of it directly, full on. It’s like you’re lying on a bed of flowers. No, not on. Under.
So this word must be Greek, right, with the ph? Unless it’s something like Hindi or Thai? Hmm. Here’s the funny thing: It came to us (via French) from Latin nenufar. Latin got it from Arabic naynufar. The OED says that was probably a “transmission error” from Persian nilufar. Which in turn comes from Sanskrit nilotpala, from nila ‘dark blue’ and utpala ‘lotus’ or ‘water lily’.
Do you notice where the ph comes in? Right at the end. French also had it originally as nénufar. Apparently f just didn’t seem classical enough. Latin has f, but words that are loans into Latin must get ph because Greek, amirite? Maybe the f is just too, um, basic, so they have to adjust the ph balance.
So. From nilotpala to nenuphar – which, in English, according to the OED, is pronounced “nen you far” or “nen ya fer,” thanks to the phonological muscle-wrenching of the English vowel shift.
Well, whatever. It all comes out in the wash. Actually, no, it doesn’t – your hands smell like it for a while.