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!
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