I’m reading Lena Eltang’s second novel, Каменные клены (Stone Maples, the name of the Welsh inn where most of the story takes place; for my thoughts on her first, see this post), and once again I am having the pleasant task of investigating all sorts of allusions and quotations, some of which are damnably difficult to track down (I think “Было не было, есть только есть” [Was wasn’t, there’s only is] is a distorted version of Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” but I can’t be sure). There are a great many quotations (probably altered) from at least one old травник (herbal), and one of them reads:

…пурпур бывает античный, из морской улитки по капле выдоенный, и барочный — сок лишайника всего-навсего, выжатая насухо трава оризелло

…purple can be antique, milked from a sea snail drop by drop, or baroque — just the sap of a lichen, orizello grass squeezed dry

That mysterious word orizello sent me on a chase that had such a satisfying ending I had to bring it here. After much googling and comparing I eventually determined it was the same as the English word entered in the OED under orchil (entry updated September 2004), which exhibits this wide range of forms: orchell, orcall, orcheall, orchel, orchall, orchal, orcheal, orcheil, oricelle, orselle, orcella, orchill, orseille, orchil (and that’s not even taking into account the alternate form archil, which has its own entry). It’s pronounced with ch as both /k/ and /tʃ/, which is a bit odd, and means “A red or violet dye prepared from certain lichens, esp. Roccella tinctoria.” The etymology is tangled and interesting:

< Middle French, French orseille (c1460; attested earlier in Middle French as orsolle, oursolle (both a1425); Littré (1868) also records a form †orchel, describing it as ‘synonyme vieilli d’orseille’) < Catalan orxella (1271), perhaps < Arabic urjāla, urjālla (982 in a Spanish Arabic source attributed to Ibn Juljul; however, this may itself be a borrowing < a Romance language), of uncertain origin: see note. Compare Italian oricello (a1347; also as orcello (1598 in Florio)), Spanish urchilla (1400), orchilla (1495; > orchilla n.), Portuguese urchilha, urzela. Compare archil n., orell n.
Littré erroneously derives the word from the name of Federigo Ruccelai or Oricellari, a member of a wealthy Tuscan family who, he claims, introduced the use of this dye into Italy in c1300. In fact the reverse is true: the Oricellari family (afterwards Ruccellari or Rucellai) took their surname from the name of the lichen; compare Gamurrini Istoria Genealogica delle Famiglie Nobili della Toscana (1668) I. 274, Giornale de’ Letterati d’Italia (1721) 33 231–2. According to the second of these, Federigo, on noticing the properties of the plant in the Levant, ‘intesi chiamarsi Respio in quella parte, Orciglio in Ispagna’. Compare also the following:
1863 ‘G. Eliot’ Romola II. xviii. 210 By bringing the excellent secret of this dye, called oricello, from the Levant to Florence, a certain merchant..won for himself and his descendants much wealth, and the pleasantly-suggestive surname of Oricellari, or Roccellari, which on Tuscan tongues speedily became Rucellai.

When I got to the end I uttered a cry of delighted recognition and read it to my wife; as it happens, we had just finished a nighttime reading of Romola and well remembered the name Rucellai. Synchronicity! (If anyone’s curious, we’ve moved on to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, which is tremendous fun and a breath of fresh air after the Eliot, which despite its Eliotic virtues is long and ponderous.)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s pronounced with ch as both /k/ and /tʃ/, which is a bit odd,

    Just lich liken.

  2. Keith Ivey says

    Or conch.

    Or arch-, depending on whether it’s attached to angel or enemy. Somewhere recently I heard someone pronounce archmage with a /k/, but I wouldn’t do that unless it was archimage, with an extra syllable. Maybe the difference is whether the arch- was attached to an English word or was already combined at the point the word came into English (like archangel).

  3. As an innocent youngster, I grew pronouncing lichen like kitchen but through shame and embarrassment changed to liken, because that’s what the best people say.

  4. John Cowan says

    Somewhere recently I heard someone pronounce archmage with a /k/

    It’s a neologism (it appears in Wikt but not in the older dictionaries, all of which have only archimage), and the combining form arch- is always pronounced with /tʃ/. In Greek there are two combining forms, arch-, and archi-. Due to my utter ignorance of Greek morphology, I have no idea why archidiakonos and archiepiskopos go one way and archangelos the other. Naively I would have expected that the /i/ would be elided before another vowel, giving *archepiskopos, but that’s not the case.

    In OE these three words were all originally calqued with héah- ‘high’, but this was later replaced in the first two by erce-, where the front vowel palatalized the c to /tʃ/. This same process gave German erz-, Dutch aarts-. Later the first vowel in erce- was replaced by /a/ under French influence, the second vowel was dropped, and the resulting arch- was generalized, giving the living combining form.

    However, erce-engel was modified or replaced by French archangle (a variant or doublet of archange), which has /k/, so English archangel does too. Unfortunately there is now no way of telling whether a Latinate arch- borrowing goes back to arch- or archi- except to look it up or to already know the pronunciation. Many modern arch- words, says the OED, are calques from Romance or Germanic analogues, e.g. archduke < Erzherzog < archidux; all of these have /tʃ/.

    Latinate words from Middle or Modern English times (e.g. architect, archimage) retained the Latinate pronunciation with /k/, which is now (I think) universal in archi- words. (In any case, if modern archi- had been palatalized, we’d expect /s/, by the second palatalization of Latinate words in English.) Sometimes we have a doublet: both arch-eunuch and archieunuch `title of a great officer of state in the Byzantine Empire’ are recorded.

  5. For some reason I always want to use /tʃ/ in archipelago, so the word annoys me.

  6. However, erce-engel was modified under the influence of French archangle

    No, erce-engel never existed, as far as the OED, MED, and Toronto DOE know. There was the calque heah-engel, then there was the borrowing of archangel from French, nothing in between that we have any record of.

    French archangle (a variant or doublet of archange)

    Rather, archange is a development of archangle in Central French that never crossed over to England. The OED’s entry is old and in need of revision: the immediate source of archangel should be Anglo-Norman, not Old French. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary has archangle as the headword and has an L in all the listed forms, except one archangre.

    archduke < Erzherzog < archidux

    That’s not what the OED says, it only says “many of the English examples, e.g. archduke, are adaptations of foreign titles”, not that archduke is from German. In fact it’s directly from French, from Latin, and the German is a calque from Latin.

    One that really is calqued from German: archmarshal.

  7. I once had to read an English essay done by a German student who confused me by referring to ‘arches’ which made no sense in context – it was ‘ores’, with his mistake deriving from assuming that Erz- as in Erzengel was the same word as standalone Erz. I now want to know what an ore-angel would look like – and how do they get on with the kobolds in mines?

  8. John Cowan says

    ktschwarz: Thanks for the corrections. I did look at sources other than the OED, but not the MED. I need to start looking at the AND too; it’s not yet really on my radar, but should be.

  9. archipelago: Interestingly, this is not formed directly from Greek roots; it originated in Italian as Arcipelago, specifically the Aegean Sea, apparently an alteration of Egeopelagus influenced by other arci- words in Italian. In other words, it’s an eggcorn! The Aegean Sea has lots of little islands in it, and so the sense was transferred, first to any sea with lots of islands, then to a group of islands.

  10. Italian

    And now LH wants to use -/tʃ/….

  11. Actually, now that I think of it I’ll bet I was influenced by Spanish archipiélago — I spent some of my formative years in Argentina.

  12. Spanish usually has archi- in such words, but for some reason ‘archbishop’ is arzobispo.

  13. Portuguese actually cuts the nonsense and spells it “arquipélago”

  14. Keith Ivey says

    Similarly Spanish has archivo, while Portuguese has arquivo.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Many modern arch- words, says the OED, are calques from Romance or Germanic analogues, e.g. archduke < Erzherzog < archidux

    My favourite German “arch-” word (naturally) is Arzt, which really is another example:


    Evidently an early instance of


  16. @Hat: I’ll take your arzobispo and raise you an arcediano, for which latter the DRAE also has archidiácono. It doesn’t have archiobispo, but that does seem to crop up occasionally. In similar vein, the preferred word for ‘archdeacon’ in Catalan seems to be ‘ardiaca’, but I also found ‘arquediaca’ and ‘arxidiaca’ in abundance. Nearly all of these words beginning with archi/arxi are quite recondite and/or modern, whereas ‘archbishop’ and ‘archdeacon’ are more or less everyday words; perhaps that explains why they have more evolved forms.

    I think I more often use /tʃ/ for ‘archipelago’, and back in Blighty I’ve heard it at least as often as the other pronunciation. They both sound right to me.

  17. Rodger C says

    I know I’ve read that the Archipelago was a name for the Aegean given to it because it was the first sea the Greeks learned to sail in. Maybe somebody saw “Ancient Sea” and just made that up?

  18. John Cowan says

    So is anyone prepared to explain ἀρχι-επίσκοπος vs. ἀρχ-άγγελος yet?

  19. I would say that “Было не было, есть только есть” is the opposite of “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. I guess it means “there was no past, there is only present”.

  20. @John Cowan: I doubt there’s anything in it. In older compounds where ἀρχ- is the first element, it can show up in various forms: ἀρχι-τέκτων (Herodotus), ἀρχεσί-μολπος (Stesichorus), ἀρχέ-πολις (Pindar), ἀρχέ-κακος (Homer). In these, the verbal force of ἀρχ- tends to come out clearly, whereas in Post-Classical Greek the form ἀρχι- has become grammaticalized as a very productive prefix meaning ‘chief x’. So that form was clearly the main choice when creating these new compounds, but in some cases it must have been analysed as ἀρχ(ι)- with iota used before a consonant (analogy with words such as ἀρχ-ιατρός and ἀρχ-ιερεύς may have helped). There are late words such as ἀρχ-έφοδος, ἀρχ-έμπορος and ἀρχ-οινόχοος with the bare root, but then we also find ἀρχι-ευνοῦχος, ἀρχι-εταῖρος and ἀρχι-επίσκοπος; both forms are found in at least ἀρχ(ι)-υπηρέτης. So there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to it, especially when considering the case of ἀρχ-άγγελος, since it is the only word I could find in LSJ with this prefix before alpha. If the bloke who coined ἀρχάγγελος had decided on *ἀρχιάγγελος, it probably would have been fine too.

  21. @Hat: I think my attempt to answer John Cowan’s question has been cast into limbo…

  22. Stu Clayton says

    “Было не было, есть только есть” is the opposite of “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.

    Could be a line from a Russian translation of Hamlet: “It was [or] it wasn’t, that is the only question at present.”

  23. Stu Clayton says

    Было не было

    Stressed “было нéбыло”, right ? I think I remember learning that 50 years ago. In the dog park with Sparky, when we walk past one or the other older woman on a bench who is talking Russian loudly on her phone, I have heard that stress pattern. I don’t know whether it was an emphatic negative, or just the way things are.

  24. @Hat: I think my attempt to answer John Cowan’s question has been cast into limbo…

    Actually, Akimbo cast it into hell (the spam folder); if it had been in limbo (the moderation queue), I would have found it. But thanks to your timely alert, I have resurrected it!

    Stressed “было нéбыло”, right ?

    Right. That stress pattern is archaic and has to be learned for the few lexical items that exhibit it.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    Akimbo cast it into hell (the spam folder)

    Well, Andy shouldn’t have used sexy language such as ευνοῦχος and ἑταῖρος (too close to ἑταίρα, I suppose).

  26. Akimbo?! How did I come up with that? I meant Akismet, of course.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    It’s the kind of change I would expect from that “ChatGPT” thing. It might associate “limbo” with “Akimbo”, the connection being “people in a temporary unnatural position”.

    Even if lots of people will be using it, I don’t expect anyone will notice. There are already reams of plausible-sounding, free-association prose out there that keep people busy who like to read and write words.

    I myself assumed that Akismet had got married and changed his name.

  28. John Cowan says

    Andy: Thanks for the (non-)explanation. Apparently it is best accounted for by the Shit Happens theory of language. ἀρχεσί-μολπος ‘Lord of the Dance’ is specially interesting, though: it is explicitly said to be a hapax, and it seems there are no other words with this prefix either. Usually when a poet invents a word, it is assembled from known parts, but not this one.

    Akimbo?! How did I come up with that?

    I assumed it was spelling correction, but if not, it too is a case of Shit Happens.

    changed his name

    Though historically Akismet has been designated by all three gendered pronouns, modern usage (on this plane, at least) seems to have settled on she/her. For whatever reason, they has not been employed, perhaps because it would suggest polytheism.

    “people in a temporary unnatural position”

    In general, Limbo is not a temporary situation, unlike Purgatory. Hell was harrowed precisely once by immediate divine intervention. All the virtuous pagans and unbaptised infants of the last 2000 years will be stuck there for all eternity. However, the moderation queue can’t be equated with Purgatory either: all the souls in Purgatory are destined for Heaven, where they will go after their character defects have been scrubbed from them, at latest on the day of general judgment.

  29. @John Cowan: I was honestly quite close to simply saying ‘it’s just one of those things’, but I was glad to have an excuse to put ἀρχιευνοῦχος out there.

    Ἀρχεσίμολπος -actually no, this isn’t especially weird. The word itself may be a hapax, but this method of forming compounds is a thing. It typically happens with verbs which have a sigmatic aorist or future, but the -σι or -εσι can also get analogically extended to all sorts of other verbs where there’s no etymological justification for it. This is an artificial poetic device. Here’s another cracker from Stesichorus: λιπεσάνωρ, ‘deserting one’s husband’. Also, ‘lord of the dance’ for ἀρχεσίμολπος seems a little artistic; it means ‘initiating the song’ (said of a muse). (ἄρχω means both ‘to rule’ and ‘to begin’.)

  30. P.S. I mean you could quite reasonably translate it ‘lord of the dance’ from its constituent parts, but I think here it’s not really justified.

  31. John Cowan says

    I was just riffing on Michael Flatley.

  32. “people in a temporary unnatural position”

    In general, Limbo is not a temporary situation
    You’re saying people stay in that kind of position perpetually?

  33. @John Cowan: Or Shiva.

  34. John Cowan says

    Hell is not an easy place to be in.

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