I hereby unleash the awesome power of the internet on a puzzle that’s bothered me for more than a dozen years—or, to be more precise, one that bothered me when I first read Charles Doughty’s wonderful Travels in Arabia Deserta, and is bothering me again now that I’m reading it to my wife in the evenings. On p. 352 occurs the following passage:

In the Nefûd, towards El-Hŷza, are certain booming sand-hills, Rowsa, Deffafîat, Subbîa and lrzûm, such as the sand drift of J. Nagûs, by the sea village of Tor in Sinai : the upper sand sliding down under the foot of the passenger, there arises, of the infinite fretting grains, such a giddy loud swelling sound, as when your wetted finger is drawn about the lip of a glass of water, and like that swooning din after the chime of a great bell, or cup of metal. — Nagûs is the name of the sounding-board in the belfry of the Greek monastry, whereupon as the sacristan plays with his hammer, the timber yields a pleasant musical note, which calls forth the formal colieros to their prayers ; another such singing sand drift, El-Howayrîa, is in the cliffs (east of the Mezham,) of Medáin Sâlih.

When I came across that word colieros, of course I checked all the reference sources available to me in the early ’90s, to no avail. When I again encountered it, I thought “Google will clear this up in a jiffy.” Google only turned up one hit, but it was to a selection from Tales of Travel, by Lord Curzon, and I thought “Aha, if anyone will know, it’s Lord Curzon.” Alas, it turned out Curzon was simply quoting this passage of Doughty for its evocation of the “singing sands”; he had nothing to say about colieros. So I turn to you, my readers; surely your collective experience and wisdom will solve the mystery and allow me to erase the question mark that’s been in the margin all these years.

Update. The awesome power of the internet, and more specifically of my readership, has come through once more. The learned EJP, in the comments, suggested what (once it was mentioned) made me slap my head and say “Of course!”: it’s meant for Greek καλόγερος [kalóyeros] ‘monk,’ formerly (and still in katharevousa) spelled καλόγηρος. I’m not sure whether Doughty misremembered the Greek word or whether he was using the i to indicate an “eye” pronunciation (which would give an inaccurate but comprehensible “ka-LYE-er-ohz,” with an anglicized plural), but that’s definitely the explanation.

The relevant OED entry is interesting and confusing:

(kaloje) [a. F. caloyer, ad. It. caloiero (pl. –ieri), ad. late Gr. καλόγηρος, f. καλός beautiful + γηρο-, -γηρος in comb. old, aged, i.e. ‘good in old age, venerable’. The It. caloiero, whence Fr. and Eng. immediately come, has i for palatal γ (= y cons.). The accentuation is shown in Byron quots.]

A Greek monk, esp. of the order of St. Basil.

1615 G. SANDYS Trav. 82 This mountaine is only inhabited by Grecian Monks whom they call Coloieros, vnintermixed with the Laity.
1635 E. PAGITT Christianogr. I. ii. (1636) 47 Dedicated in honor of St. Basil, to the Greeke Caloiers.
1676 F. VERNON in Phil. Trans. XI. 582 Now there is a Convent of Caloieri’s there.
1682 WHELER Journ. Greece II. 194 His usual Habit differeth not from the ordinary Caloyers, or Monks of the Order of St. Basil.
Ibid. VI. 450 They consist of above a hundred Caloiroes.
Ibid. 479 Here is also a Convent of Caloires, or Greekish Monks.
1812 BYRON Ch. Har. II. xlix, The convent’s white walls glisten fair on high. Here dwells the caloyer, nor rude is he, Nor niggard of his cheer.
1813 — Giaour 786 How name ye yon lone Caloyer?
1884 W. CARR Montenegro 29 The Vladika, the black caloyer of the Czernagora.

Now, the entry form and pronunciation suggest that this should include only examples of the French borrowing pronounced “kah-loh-YAY,” but the Sandys and Vernon quotes, at least, clearly indicate a form derived from Italian or Greek. The OED should either change the entry to explicitly include both or create another into which the latter, and the Doughty, would fit.

Since Lord Curzon has come up, I cannot forbear to quote the quatrain that was appended to him during his days at Oxford and that he was never able to shake:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.


  1. Well, both “coliero” and “colieri” seem to be common Italian surnames. (“Colieros” could be an English plural of an Italian word, rather like “pizzas”). I can’t find a translation of either word into English, but three possibilities present themselves:
    1. “Coliero” means “a man from Colio” or some such. Why is he talking about men from Colio? No idea.
    2. “Coliero” is the name of a profession or a descriptive attribute, which has become a surname. Find out what the word means, and Doughty makes sense (maybe).
    3. “Coliero” was a well-known person and Doughty is using his name as a descriptor: rather as one might talk about a group of British civil servants as “Sir Humphreys”. In which case, who was Coliero?

  2. Oh, and a fourth one: it’s a typo.

  3. This isn’t some form of “collier” (a coal-man), is it? The OED lists this among the usages:
    III. attrib. and Comb.: as collier-brig, -ship; collier-built adj.; collier-man, -master, the captain of a coal-ship; collier’s faith [med. Lat. fides carbonarii, Ger. köhlerglaube], uninquiring or unreasoning assent to the prevalent religious tenets; blind faith;
    1581 HANMER Jesuits Banner Kijb, Not hanging with the *colliers fayth upon the sleeueless coate of the Romish Church. [1603 CHETTLE Eng. Mourn. Garment Diiijb, Onely of the faith that the Colliar profest, which was euer one with the most. [See the story 1621 BURTON Anat. Mel. III. iv. II. vi.] 1680 Observ. ‘Curse Ye Meroz’ 6 [He] proceeds to talk of Faith..but possibly ’tis the Colliers Faith he means all this while.
    The Burton reference, which I will let someone else track down, sounds like it could be connected to Doughty.

  4. I found the Italian surname and thought of the “collier” possibility, but neither makes sense in context. He’s talking about Greek monks, so the word may be of Greek origin, but I’ve checked the obvious possibilities in Greek dictionaries and come up empty.
    Sure, it could be a typo, but the book is very well proofread (that “monastry” in the same sentence, for instance, is not a typo but an archaic spelling)—and what would it be a typo for?

  5. “koliero” is Esperanto for “clothing” or “fashion”, so clearly the word refers to runway models. The “formal” is supporting evidence: models seldom smile.

  6. A surprising number of the results in a Google search for “coliero” are Maltese. It usually seems to be a surname, but it’s not all one famous Maltese person. Maybe the surname is concentrated in Malta? Not that that helps at all.

  7. Andrea De Marchi says

    Just to make it clear, Coliero and Colieri are not at all common Italian surnames. In fact, they are practically nowhere to be found in Italy. See

  8. I wonder if colieros was somehow arrived at from καλογεροσ, a Greek word for monk, which also leads to caloyer and caloieros – “The Iland is but small, not aboue five miles in compasse: the chiefe thing it yeeldeth is corn: it hath a port for shipping, and in it is a monastery of Greekish Caloieros”

  9. It says here: , in a rundown of the ranks in a Greek monanstry:
    “The kellarios looked after the food.”

  10. I wonder if it might be a Frenched-up version of EJP’s caloyer / caloieros? It’s possible that collier would be the modern word, with colieros being the equivalent of going back and making it sound “more Greek.” This is mostly loose speculation on my part, but I don’t think it’s too implausible.
    This is only tangentially related, but I thought it was interesting:
    “Soon after midnight, the sound of the semandron echoes in steady rhythm across the wooded valley, a dent in the mountains where scarlet lilies and lush ferns compete in the shade that offers respite from the summer sun. It is still dark of course. Here, as all over the republic, men rise from their beds and make their way to the katholikón. Each utters a steady mantra that picks up the imposing sonority of the semandron. The beat of the wooden hammer on a huge plank of ancient maple calls the devout and the dissolute to morning prayer. In the stricter regime of the more traditional communities, no-one is exempt. Not even the guests who arrived only yesterday from the mainland and are still foot weary from the trail and mind weary from their encounters with Athonite bureaucracy.”

  11. that quote was from an article on the comment form didn’t like me including the url for some reason.

  12. It’s definitely meant for kaloyeros, and I should have thought of that myself. Thanks, EJP!

  13. What interesting timing; the New York Times just had an article on the singing sand dunes.

  14. Ian Myles Slater says

    And Language Log has an interesting posting on some small problems with the said New York Times article.

  15. The OED can’t use every obsolete spelling as a headword. Presumably caloyer is the current (1800+) spelling. The older ones differ from it by -i- for -y-, or including the Italian -o/-i, or by haphazard errors. The list of forms is adequately given by the quotations and explained by the etymology.

  16. x: No, you’re wrong. 1) Caloyer is not the “current” spelling; have you seen it lately? It may well not have been used since the 19th century; it’s certainly thoroughly obsolete. (A Google search reveals a bunch of dictionary entries, taken over from older dictionaries, and a Wikipedia article that “incorporates content from the 1728 Cyclopaedia, a publication in the public domain.”) If someone wants to refer to a Greek monk by the native name, they would now presumably a form closer to the Greek kaloyeros, in keeping with the trend towards ever more accurate renditions of local names over the last century. In any event: 2) The entry is specifically for the French loan; both spelling and pronunciation make that clear, and the etymology says it’s from French, which in turn is from Italian, which is from Greek. If they want to include forms from Italian and/or Greek, they have to either change the structure of the entry or create a new entry for the latter. As I said.
    Perhaps you’re not aware that the OED very frequently has separate entries for separate borrowings of the same foreign word, if they’re as different in form as caloyer /kaloye/ and kaloyeros /kaloyeros/.

  17. Interesting correspondence between the NYT explanation of the sound (“collisions between sand grains cause the motions of the grains to become synchronized”) and Doughty’s (“the upper sand sliding down under the foot of the passenger, there arises, of the infinite fretting grains, such a giddy loud swelling sound…”).

  18. I’m glad I could be of help. Strangely, it was not more than a few days ago that I first came across the word caloyer, in a novel by Gene Wolfe. If it hadn’t been fresh in my mind I probably wouldn’t have made the connection with colieros.

  19. Which novel was it? I love Gene Wolfe but haven’t read very much.

  20. LH, the word have sipped into Russian through Byzantium Orthodox associations and it means the monk who’s responsible for the meals in a monastery.

  21. It was in The Claw of the Conciliator, second volume of The Book of the New Sun – “The executions were to take place at the very center of the festivities, and a dense crowd had already gathered there. A caloyer in red stood beside the scaffold clutching his little formulary; he was an old man, as most of them are.”
    Mr. Wolfe’s books are a treat for anyone with a taste for obscure and archaic words.

  22. Thanks, Tat and EJP respectively!

  23. Two things:

    1) The OED entry, though allegedly not updated since 1888, now has the pronunciation /kəˈlɔɪə/ — and yet they keep “The accentuation is shown in Byron quots”!

    2) I guess I didn’t click on Tat’s link before; келарь, as the linked article says, is from Greek κελλάριος ‘cellarer’ and thus is unrelated to this word. However, I’ve just run across the Russian borrowing in Pushkin: “К Якубовичу калуер приходит” [To Yakubovich comes the caloyer].

  24. I remember having come across the surname Калогиру (Καλογήρου) somewhere, either at school or at university.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    I believe the name is still a given one there.

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