In the course of my ongoing Godard retrospective, I had occasion to read Louis Aragon’s “What Is Art, Jean-Luc Godard?” (an encomium of Pierrot le fou), and I was struck by the following rhapsodic passage:

Red sings in the film like an obsession. As in Renoir, where a Provençal house with its terraces reminds one here of the Terrasses à Cagnes. Like a dominant color of the modern world. So insistently does Godard use the color that when I came out of the film, I saw nothing else in Paris but the reds—signs indicating one-way streets; the multiple eyes of the red stop-lights; girls in cochineal-colored slacks; madder-colored shops, scarlet-colored cars, red-lead paint on the balconies of rundown buildings, the tender carthamus of lips; […]

Carthamus? Quel minuto più non vi lessi avante — I headed straight for the reference works. Wikipedia told me “The genus Carthamus, the distaff thistles, includes plants in the family Asteraceae. […] The best known species is the safflower (Carthamus tinctorius).” As for safflower:

Safflower petals contain one red and two yellow dyes. In coloring textiles, dried safflower flowers are used as a natural dye source for the orange-red pigment carthamin. Carthamin is also known, in the dye industry, as Carthamus Red or Natural Red 26. […] The dye is suitable for cotton, which takes up the red dye, and silk, which takes up the yellow and red color yielding orange.

And the word carthamus is from Arabic قرطم (qurṭum):

From Classical Syriac ܩܽܘܪܛܡܳܐ‎ (qūrṭəmā, “safflower”), from ܩܰܪܛܶܡ‎ (qarṭem, “to cut off gently, to trim”), from the plucking off petals which are used for dyeing.

I was pleased (and surprised) to find that the original of the Aragon essay is available online; of course it sounds better in French:

Le rouge y chante comme une obsession. Comme chez Renoir, dont une maison provençale avec ses terrasses rappelle ici les Terrasses à Cagnes. Comme une dominante du monde moderne. A tel point qu’à la sortie je ne voyais rien d’autre de Paris que les rouges : disques de sens unique, yeux multiples de l’on ne passe pas, filles en pantalons de cochenille, boutiques garance, autos écarlates, minium multiplié aux balcons des ravalements, carthame tendre des lèvres […]

And when I did a Google Books search on carthame, I found this splendid passage from Annales du Musée et de l’Ecole moderne des beaux-arts (Chez C.P. Landon, 1801), p. 13:

Le carthame des teinturiers est remarquable par la belle couleur de ses fleurs; ces fleurs, qui sont placées au sommet de chaque rameau, sont composées d un calice ovale, formé d’écailles épineuses qui se recouvrent les unes les autres, et d’une corolle d’un rouge de safran : la corolle est composée elle-même d’une vingtaine de petits fleurons, munis de cinq étamines, et partagés en cinq dentelures. Chaque fleuron est placé sur une graine ovale, dégarnie d’aigrette, de laquelle sort un style cylindrique. La plante s’élève à un demim-ètre et quelquefois davantage ; elle est droite, garnie de feuilles éparses, sessiles, coriaces, glabres et épineuses sur les bords. Jussieu classe le carthame parmi ses cynarocéphales ; Tournefort le plaçait dans ses flosculeuses ; et Linné dans sa syngénésie polygamie égale.

The safflower of the dyers is remarkable for the beautiful color of its flowers; these flowers, which are placed at the top of each branch, are composed of an oval calyx, formed of spiny scales which overlap each other, and of a corolla of a saffron red color: the corolla is itself composed of a score of small florets, provided with five stamens, and divided into five serrations. Each floret is placed on an oval seed, stripped of pappus, from which emerges a cylindrical style. The plant rises to half a meter and sometimes more; it is upright, furnished with scattered leaves, sessile, coriaceous, glabrous, and thorny on the edges. Jussieu classifies the safflower among his cynarocephalæ; Tournefort placed it in his Flosculosæ; and Linnaeus in his Syngenesia Polygamia Æqualis.

It cost me some effort to find the appropriate rendering of the Linnaean phrase, and I still have no idea what to do with flosculeuses, so I left it in French. [I have changed it to Flosculosæ following Andy’s suggestion in the comments.] I note that Google Translate rendered aigrette as “pappus” while had “aigrette” (both are acceptable: OED s.v. aigrette 1.b. “Any of various tufts in the natural world of similar appearance to a bird’s tuft; esp. the feathery pappus of the seeds of plants like the dandelion and thistle”); they both screwed up droite, rendering it as “right.” And I have to say that while I sometimes cast a cold eye at authors who use highly unusual words when it might seem a simpler one would do, I like Aragon’s carthame here. It’s a fine word.


  1. Looks like an editing error dropped the girls out of “the multiple eyes of the red stop-lights in cochineal-colored slacks”.

  2. Good catch — I’ve added them back in from my hard copy of Focus on Godard.

  3. Question on your Italian. Is it a quote from somewhere? My Italian is rusty. Lessi sans accent grave would be the past remote of leggere, so I’m wondering if the accent grave means it’s a different word entirely? Please enlighten me.

  4. Flosculeuses – why not just ‘flosculous flowers’?

  5. Question on your Italian. Is it a quote from somewhere? My Italian is rusty. Lessi sans accent grave would be the past remote of leggere, so I’m wondering if the accent grave means it’s a different word entirely? Please enlighten me.

    It’s a riff on Dante’s famous “quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante” [that day we read no more (Inf.5.137-8)]; see here for context. You’re right about the accent — I mindlessly copied lèssi from the Conjugation table here, but of course that’s just for pronunciation purposes and shouldn’t be used in running text. I’ll fix it now, thanks!

    why not just ‘flosculous flowers’?

    Because it’s specifically Tournefort’s classification, parallel to cynarocephalæ and Syngenesia Polygamia Æqualis, and I don’t know enough about historical biological nomenclature to know how it should be rendered; “flosculous flowers” would be a fine equivalent in running text, but it doesn’t seem appropriate here.

  6. Dan Milton says

    When I saw your “Arabic qurtum” I thought Aha! When I was doing geological field work in India (eastern Maharashtra) fifty years ago, we walked through many safflower fields. I remember the local name as something like “khurdy”, which matches nicely.
    Alas, Google Translate gives “kusum” in Hindi and “kusuma” in Marathi. Can someone give a explanation other than my fading memory?

  7. @Hat -Fair play, actually. Then what about using ‘Flosculosae’? A quick perusal of google turned up a few results from the very early 19th century, and one from the 18th.

  8. Sounds good — I’ll put it in!

  9. @Dan Milton – I have no Marathi whatsoever, but I found ‘karḍī’ in Turner’s Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages. It doesn’t suggest any Semitic borrowing, but gives Prakrit ‘karaḍa’ and Sanskrit ‘karaṭa’. The latter can be found in Monier Williams (page 255) amidst a raft of other definitions; surely we’re dealing with at least two distinct words here. Finally, Tulpule and Feldhaus’ Dictionary of Old Marathi gives ‘karaḍī f. [K. karadakāï]’, with an etymology from Kannada, but I can’t seem to find any mention of the word beyond this. It seems the usual word for ‘safflower’ in Kannada is ‘kusubi’, if wiktionary is to be trusted.

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