Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sinople Ain’t Simple

During my last alphabetical round of words-of-the-week, I took great pains to explain my hatred for the word ypsiliform, which means “having the form of a ‘Y’” but for various reasons has become easy to misunderstand and misuse, at least in my opinion. In response to that post, occasional commenter Britta noted existence of another word, sinople, which despite only meaning specific things could nonetheless be easily misinterpreted. Months later, I’m finally on “S” again. That tingly feeling? Yeah, it’s the pins and needles you’re sitting on.
sinople (SIN-o-pul) — noun: 1. in heraldic terms, a green or dark green color; the tincture vert. 2. in mineralogical terms, a clay or quartz containing iron oxides, with a blood-red or brownish-red color, used to make the red pigment sinopia.
There you go: In short, sinople can only mean a specific thing in a given context; however, these two contexts actually used the word quite differently. In fact, if you’re looking at a traditional pigment color wheel, red and green are actually complementary colors and therefore opposites. This is all probably a moot point in that few people would know of the word — it appears in neither the American Heritage Dictionary’s online version nor the standard, abridged Merriam-Webster — but the fact remains that if a coats-of-arms scholar and a mineralogist were for some reason collaborating on a painting, it could very well be possible that the former would ask the latter for the tube of sinople, be given a container of brick-red paint and consequently conclude that his partner was an idiot.

“remember: hit the ball into the sinople part of the court.”

The word sinople comes from the Turkish city Sinop, which was built upon land with a red-ochre color to it. This earth was eventually used to create the pigment sinopia. Wikipedia notes that Cennino Cennini wrote of sinopia in the 15th-century text Il Livro del Arte:
A natural color known as sinoper, or porphyry, is red; and this color is lean and dry in character. It stands working up well; for the more it is worked up, the finer it becomes. It is good for use on panel or anconas, or on the wall, in fresco or in secco.
The relatively little written online about sinople makes a tough job of investigating why it would have later become associated with green instead of only red. Even those who profess to know much about heraldic matters say the switch seem inexplicable. A short post on the complicated etymology of another heraldic color wordgules, meaning “red” — lists sinople alongside rouge and vermeil as words that also signified red. In the mid-14th century, the French heraldic vocabulary began using sinople to refer to green. The article guesses that this may have resulted from the fact that the previous — and now current — French word for green, vert, sounded so similar to the word vair, another heraldic term, and that those designing and then gabbing on about coast of arms would have wanted to avoid confusion between the two.

An essay explaining various bits of heraldic vocabulary notes that the French sinople was, despite its enigmatic origins, successful enough as a word meaning green that it made it into Dutch blazonspeak as sinopel. It also offers two other possible explanations for the switch: the popular theory that mediaeval heralds wanted to make their craft obscure — though the author notes that this “defies reason” — and that it could have resulted from an accident on the part of a colorblind herald, as the most common form of colorblindness prohibits the afflicted from differentiating red from green, marinara from pesto, Mario from Luigi.

Whatever the reasoning behind the definition, you know now what sinople means — or at least what it means part of the time. Play those odds! Hate sinople for being ambiguous or love it for being generative to confusion and ensuing sitcom-like zaniness.

I’m going to finish this post by noting something I realized while reading about heraldry that also relates to issues relating to metathesis — specifically the confusion between “L” and “R” sounds that so often occurs when translating English into certain Asian languages. In a previous post, I talked about how the English word miracle and its Spanish counterpart, milagro, and how a similar sort of “L”/“R” switch seemed to have occurred. I wondered how often this happens between English and Spanish but couldn’t think of any other examples. Stuffy old heraldry gave me one more: azure and azul. Both mean blue. Not sure where the switch occurred, but worth noting nonetheless.

Colors, previously:
Previous words of the week:

4 comments:

  1. I'm not sure why you'd think it's problematic that there are words that mean very different things in different contexts. Language is full of this sort of thing.
    sanction, cleave, dust, trim, literally, ravel, puzzle, fast, etc: http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/6/6-74.html

    Other examples of metathesis: "clasp" (from OE "claps"), "dusk" (from OE "dox"), "ask/aks".

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  2. First off, I didn't say I hate sinople.

    Second, I don't think words like it are problematic because I work at a newspaper and have previously worked at others papers and magazines. We'd never use the word sinople, but other ambiguous words have to be off limits, simply because they create confusion and necessitate either more space for explanation than concise news style should allow --- that is, it would be easier to just choose another word --- or follow up with a clarification down the line. I remember working for one newspaper that advertised for a biweekly columnist position. The number of responses we got from people inquiring about whether this meant twice a week or every two weeks was a huge pain in the ass, even though the paper's every other columnist only wrote once a week or every two weeks and anyone even slightly familiar with how the op page worked should have presumed that we wouldn't have been hiring someone to write twice a week. Perhaps because the responsibility fell on me, I made the paper pass a new rule: We can never use the word biweekly again. As far as the newspaper rule about any given chunk of text needing to make sense on the first read-through, biweekly doesn't work. It's a meaningless word, effectively, since it apparently can be interpreted by context.

    I understand that word-lovers enjoy autoantonyms and others generative to wordplay, but I --- despite being the king of typos --- have an aversion to using something that could be easily misunderstood.

    Ypsiliform and its synonyms and variant spellings pose a particular problem to me because, due to the reasons I discussed in the above linked post, it would be easy for someone to look it up at some Joe Schmoe online dictionary --- and lots of people do use these dictionaries --- and read a misprinted definition that would be misleading.

    As for the metathesis, I'm looking specifically and "R"/"L" switches between English and Spanish.

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  3. My apologies. I got the impression that you thought there was something wrong with these sorts of words or something.

    Latin peregrinus "foreign" became Late Latin pelegrinus "pilgrim". Spanish has peregrino, and English has two words: pilgrim and peregrine.

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  4. I had the same trouble finding sources when writing that Wikipedia article. It's still a great little word.

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