Hail, poetry!

Aficionados—a word that English borrowed from Spanish—of the British duo Gilbert and Sullivan are almost universally fond of a song in Pirates of Penzance in which the pirates suddenly and incongruously sing of their love for poetry:

Hail, Poetry, thou heav’n-born maid!
Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail, all hail, divine emollient!

(I’ll encourage readers unfamiliar with this to listen to it sung: online clips include this one and this one and this one.)

The last word in the quoted stanza is our real subject today. As an abstract noun, an emollient is ‘a softening,’ and as a concrete noun an emollient is ‘a substance that softens the skin.’ The definition of Spanish emoliente in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española is similar to the second English one: ‘Dicho de un medicamento: Que sirve para ablandar una dureza o un tumor.’

The word goes back to the present participle of Latin emollire, a compound of ex (used as an intensifier) and mollire ‘to soften.’ That basic verb, as we saw two posts ago, ultimately led to Spanish mojar ‘to wet’ and mojo ‘sauce.’ It is also the basis of our borrowed molificar/mollify, which likewise means ‘to soften,’ but usually in a figurative sense with reference to people.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lexiekahn
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 19:13:28

    How interesting. I never thought about the connections among “emollient,” “mollify,” “mojar” and “mojo.” I wondered whether the Mexican sauce with numerous spicy variants, “mole,” also belonged to this group. But, no. According to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, http://buscon.rae.es/draeI/SrvltConsulta?TIPO_BUS=3&LEMA=mole, “mole” in that sense comes from Nahua, the Aztec language.


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 19:38:53

    I’m always happy to make connections. Your thought that mole might be a relative is a natural one, but, as you found out, the hypothesis doesn’t hold up. What is related to mole is guacamole, a combination of Nahua aguacatl ‘avocado’ and mole, so guacamole is essentially ‘avocado sauce.’


  3. shoreacres
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 15:39:51

    Never a fan of musical theater, and barely knowledgeable when it comes to G&S, I still was taken aback to see the song you posted above. It reminded me immediately – immediately! – of a “bit” included in Lawrence Durrell’s Clea, one of the four volumes of his Alexandria Quartet.

    Since it’s spoken by an Englishman in the book, it’s entirely plausible that it’s a parody of the G&S song. It’s also not something I’d be comfortable posting on a family-friendly site – just a bit D.H.Lawrence-ish. But it’s a great connection, and I’m pleased to have made it.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 19, 2011 @ 20:08:31

      Your instinctive and immediate reaction is good evidence that the lines in Clea were indeed a parody of G & S, whose works every educated Briton of Durrell’s era would have been familiar with. I’m glad that you made a great connection (something you know I’m fond of doing as well).

      Parodies of G & S continue to this day, including a recent one of the Major General’s song with words about Barack Obama.


  4. Trackback: aficionado « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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