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Verbal Energy

Forever Anbar, or is that maybe ambergris?

A friend’s question about possible connections between a couple of sound-alike words serves as a reminder that with words, just as with people, some that appear closely related, aren’t, and others that don’t, are.

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    A shopkeeper displays plastic chairs in front of his shop in dowtown Fallujah, Iraq, in the country's Anbar province.
    Gordon Lubold/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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A friend asks: Why do “Amarillo,” as in Texas, and “amaryllis,” as in those bulbs in a box at the supermarket this time of year, have a “commonality of sounds?” Are they related?

The short answer is no. But the longer answer is more interesting. I’ve been thinking about the current Henry Louis Gates Jr. celebrity-genealogy TV series, “Finding Your Roots.” My big takeaway from genealogical research is that Everyone Is Related to Everyone Else. An important secondary message, though, is that some things that appear closely related, aren’t, and other things that don’t, are. 

Before it was the name of a group of plants, Amaryllis was a feminine given name, “of a country-girl in Theocritus, Ovid, and Virgil,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (“Yes, of course, Theocritus,” I hear you murmuring, Dear Reader.) The great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), needing a name for a particular “genus of autumn-flowering bulbous plants,” to quote the OED further, evidently just plucked “Amaryllis” from classical literature and pressed it into service.

The letter “y” often points to Greek roots. The illo suffix in amarillo, though, is simply a standard Spanish diminutive.

An armadillo, thus, is literally “a little armored thing.” One accounting for amarillo is that it means “a bit of bitterness.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary explains amarillo as a “name given to several species of American trees, from Spanish, from Arabic anbari ‘yellow, amber-colored,’ from anbar, ‘amber.’   ”

Amarillo, the city, the dictionary surmises, “may be so called from the color of the banks of a nearby stream.” But is there a connection to Anbar Province in Iraq?

Amber came into English, from Arabic in the mid-14th century to mean what we now call ambergris, or perfume made therefrom. The dictionary explains ambergris as “a wax-like substance of ashy colour, found floating in tropical seas, a morbid secretion from the intestines of the sperm-whale. Used in perfumery, and formerly in cookery.” Yum.

The dictionary adds, “In Europe, the sense was extended, inexplicably, to fossil resins from the Baltic ... which has become the main sense as the use of ambergris has waned.” 

These resins are the hard orange-yellow substance used in jewelry. Ambergris came into use to distinguish whales’ “gray amber” from jewelers’ “yellow amber.”

“Forever Amber” was a racy historical novel, set in the 17th century and published in 1944. Scandalous in its day, it nonetheless led to many girls’ being named “Amber” after its title character. “Anbar” is a Muslim girl’s name, meaning “perfume” or “ambergris.”

Anbar Province in Iraq, though, gets its name from a similar-looking but different Persian word that, according to the Tourism in Iraq website, means “granaries.”

By the time you read this, Professor Gates may have shown how the actress Julianne Moore is related to, who knows, Muhammad Ali or Mahatma Gandhi. As with people, so with words: There are connections – just not always as you’d expect.

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