In my word-of-the-week post on sinople — a striking shade of either red or green, depending on your research background — I noted how a briefing on the vocabulary of heraldry reminded me about something that in turn gave a little insight into a subject I’ve been wondering about lately: The existence of the words azure — a heraldic color term that has persisted in modern English as a word meaning “sky blue” — and azul — Spanish for “blue” — constitute one more instance of “R”/“L” confusion occurring between English and Spanish along the lines of miracle and milagro. (And in the comments to that post, Goofy offered me another: the Spanish peregrino and the English pilgrim.)
Something else I glanced over in preparation of the post, however, has led me to something twice as interesting. A text by Cennino Cennini describes a 15th-century perspective on sinople, calling it by the names sinoper and porphyry. The first, again, would seem to exhibit an “R”/“L” switch, but that’s not why I’m writing this. It’s that other word, porphyry. I looked it up and found that it still exists as a term referring to the purple-red appearance of certain rocks. Etymologically, the word porphyry means what it looks like: “purple.” (And yes, that would be yet another “R”/“L” switch. They apparently appear everywhere when you begin looking for them.)
The connection between porphyry and purple reminded me of another subject I’d previously written about on this blog: Porfirio Rubirosa, famed playboy and diddler to the stars whose lingering claim to fame is that his member was so large that it associated his last name with two-hander, restaurant-grade sort of pepper grinders. Cast that image out of your mind for a moment and concentrate instead on what is likely Porfirio Rubirosa’s single strongest chromatic association: Truman Capote’s description of his most famous part as an “eleven-inch café-au-lait sinker as thick as a man’s wrist.” Now that is a chunk of syntax that will follow you past the grave. (That brought an even more vivid image, didn’t it?)
rubirosa seated beside odile rodin at a boxing match. one can only wonder what is on his mind.
However, my sudden awareness of porphyry has led me to discover that the name Porfirio does, in fact, also mean “purple.” Connotations of royalty aside, a name that means “purple” strikes my American ears as unmanly. That apparently didn’t stop Rubirosa. Perhaps certain men can pull off names that would crush others. Fiorello “Little Flower” La Guardia comes to mind.
The meaning of his first name is particularly notable in light of his last name, Rubirosa. In Spanish, rubio means “fair” — pelo rubio is “blond hair.” Rubio, however, shares an obvious etymological connection with the English word ruby and its various relatives, almost all of which mean “red.” (I wonder if some group of Spanish-speakers may have at some point lumped hair colors into “dark” — brown and black — and “not dark” — blond and red — and simply called the latter group rubio.) Considered in light of its second part, Rubirosa’s last name could be literally read as meaning “rose red.” When you think about it, Purple Rose-red is a very strange name for any man, much less one who had so much luck with the ladies.
That is unless we think about the one thing we remember Porfirio Rubirosa for today. Sure, when Capote saw it, the color he saw was café-au-lait. But knowing Rubirosa, this awkward encounter with the human equivalent of a pickled, shelled soft-boiled egg wouldn’t have brought out real its colors — the throbbing purple and red that would have been familiar to the likes of Delores Del Rio, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Kim Novak, Eva Peron, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton.
When I think about it in that sense, Porfirio Rubirosa is probably the only person I can think of who both lived up to and managed to overcome his name. And that, like something else I now find myself thinking of, is no small matter.