Patrick Taylor, LH’s house etymologist, has a question; the following is quoted from his Facebook feed, and I’m hoping we can help solve the mystery:
Yesterday, Stephen Dodson at his blog Language Hat crowdsourced an interpretion of the word sheog occuring in the novel Cloud Atlas. I was thinking about asking LH readers about a puzzling word in another novel, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (Benim Adım Kırmızı), but I didn’t want to hijack the thread. In one passage of Pamuk’s novel, the color red—the title character—introduces itself to the reader:
Susun da dinleyin nasıl da böyle harika bir kırmızı olduğumu. Boyadan anlar üstat nakkaş, Hindistan’ın en sıcak yerinden gelen en iyi kırmızı böceğinin kurusunu kendi havanında elceğiziyle döve döve iyice toz edip, bunun beş dirhemini ve bir dirhem çöven ve yarım dirhem de lotor hazır etti. Üç okka suyu tencereye koyup, çöveni içine atıp kaynattı. Sonra lotoru suya koydu, güzelce karıştırdı. Bir güzel kahve içecek zaman kadar kaynattı.
Hush and listen to how I developed such a magnificent red tone. A master miniaturist, an expert in paints, furiously pounded the best variety of dried red beetle from the hottest climes of Hindustan into a fine powder using his mortar and pestle. He prepared five drachmas of the red powder, one drachma of soapwort and a half drachma of lotor. He boiled the soapwort in a pot containing three okkas of water. Next, he mixed thoroughly the lotor into the water. He let it boil for as long as it took to drink an excellent cup of coffee.
What is lotor? The translator doesn’t bother translating it (or the Ottoman measure okka—probably akin to English ounce in origin, but actually about 1.2 liters). Nobody in Turkey seems to know. One study of Pamuk that I found online says of the word: “Sözlüklerde tespit edilemeyen lotor bir çeşit bitki olmalıdır.” (Lotor, which cannot be found in any dictionaries, must be a sort of plant.) However, one can also find lists of ingredients for Ottoman pigments online, such as this one:
zamkı arabî, limon tuzu, kara hâlile, zaçı kıbrıs (demir sülfat), lutr, kireç, nişadır, bengal, mor bakkam, al bakkam, göztaşı…
Gum arabic, lemon salt [crystalline citric acid], chebulic myrobalan, copperas, lutr, slaked lime, sal ammoniac, munjeet, purple sappanwood [or logwood?], red sappanwood [brazilwood?], blue vitriol…
Lutr must be the same word as Pamuk’s lotor. One or the other must be a mistransliteration of an Ottoman term. Lutr can also be “otter” in Turkish, but that must be a modern borrowing from French, and I don’t [think] any otter parts or secretions would figure in the list. As it happens, lutr is flanked by two mineral substances in the list.
I thought that lotor/lutr might be borax and come from Latin lōtor, since borax is used in “washes” or flux, but borax in Persian and Ottoman is tenekâr تنکار (related to the old-fashioned English designation, tincal). But looking at the passage I thought it was perhaps an Arabization of Greek λίτρον, νίτρον, nitre, natron (sodium carbonate). However, the Ottoman usual name for nitre appears to be güherçile, and I find that the usual Arabic is naṭrūn نطرون . I couldn’t find anything that seems to be related in Syriac, either. Now I am tired and must go to bed.
Any ideas? (And of course no one should ever fear hijacking an LH thread with an interesting lexical question!)