Thursday, February 17, 2011

10 beautiful words you don't know

There are lots of words that mean or imply “beautiful.” Here’s a list pulled from a thesaurus:

adonic, adorable, aesthetic, alluring, attractive, becoming, blooming, bonny, bright, charming, classy, comely, dainty, dapper, dazzling, delicate, elegant, enchanting, exquisite, fair, fascinating, fine, glamorous, glossy, glowing, gorgeous, graceful, handsome, lovely, magnificent, picturesque, pretty, quaint, refined, resplendent, rosy, seemly, shapely, shining, sparkling, splendid, spotless, spruce, stylish, sublime, superb, svelte, winsome.

My guess is you know these words and their derivatives. But there are others. Consider the following ten words – all of which relate to beauty. The odds are that you’ve not met with them before, unless you’re a committed kalologist.

1. Orchidaceous: Orchidaceous means “like an orchid,” and since orchids are widely regarded as beautiful, it implies exceptional beautiful. But the word is used in other contexts too. It can imply “ostentatious” or even “gaudy”, which fits the appearance of some orchids too, depending on your taste. Indeed, some orchids are, to be quite honest, very much plain-Jane.

As it happens, orchids constitute the largest family of flowering plants there is. There are well over 20,000 naturally occurring species, before you get to the numerous hybrids. They grow just about everywhere on dry land. The tallest orchid variety known to man (that isn’t a vine), called grammatophyllum speciosum, can reach 25 feet in height and has leaves up to 2.5 feet long. It has a flower stalk that can bear 100 flowers and grow to 8 feet. I’d say that was ostentatious, although as I’ve never seen an exemplar, I can’t attest to gaudiness.

Orchid’s are weird indeed, as almost each variety (the vast majority of cases) can only be pollinated by a specific insect or bird, making it highly dependent on its symbiote for survival. They laugh in the general direction of Darwin. How could it be that the most prolific flower of all would choose such a fragile existence. Orchid varieties are peculiarly susceptible to extinction. They die out if the bird or insect they depend on vanishes from their ecosystem.

The word “orchid” derives directly from the Greek “orkhis” which means testicle, and probably refers to the shape of an orchid’s root (for some orchid varieties). The oddly shaped root may explain why orchids were used in ancient and medieval times as aphrodisiacs.

2. Amaranthine. This word is also Greek in origin, from “amarantos” meaning everlasting – literally, not wasting away. The amaranth was, mythically speaking, a flower that grew on Mount Olympus and a symbol of immortality, sacred to Ephesian Artemis.

Aesop tells an endearing story of a conversation between the Rose and the Amaranth, with the Amaranth envying the beauty and sweet scent of the the rose, but the Rose lamenting that “I bloom but for a time, and my petals wither and I die. But your flowers never fade, even when cut; for they are eternal.”

All of which is charming if taken as myth, but a little wide of the actualité. Amaranth is the common name for the Amaranthaceae, known also as pigweed, which sounds a little south of eternally beautiful – although, in its favor, it is believed to have healing properties. In fact there are about 70 species of Amaranth, quite a few of which grow in India, a thousand miles or more from Mount Olympus.