From Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, a long-winded joke – the overbuilt sort that makes you feel Huxely spent more time imagining witty exchange than engaging in it. Explanation passed below.
“One suffers so much,” Denis went on, “from the fact that beautiful words don’t always mean what they ought to mean. Recently, for example, I had a whole poem ruined, just because the word ‘carminative’ didn’t mean what it ought to have meant. Carminative—it’s admirable, isn’t it?”
“Admirable,” Mr. Scogan agreed. “And what does it mean?”
“It’s a word I’ve treasured from my earliest infancy,” said Denis, “treasured and loved. They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold—quite useless, but not disagreeable. One poured it drop by drop out of narrow bottles, a golden liquor, fierce and fiery. On the label was a list of its virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. I adored the word. ‘Isn’t it carminative?’ I used to say to myself when I’d taken my dose. It seemed so wonderfully to describe that sensation of internal warmth, that glow, that—what shall I call it?—physical self-satisfaction which followed the drinking of cinnamon. Later, when I discovered alcohol, ‘carminative’ described for me that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but in the soul as well. The carminative virtues of burgundy, of rum, of old brandy, of Lacryma Christi, of Marsala, of Aleatico, of stout, of gin, of champagne, of claret, of the raw new wine of this year’s Tuscan vintage—I compared them, I classified them. Marsala is rosily, downily carminative; gin pricks and refreshes while it warms. I had a whole table of carmination values. And now”—Denis spread out his hands, palms upwards, despairingly—“now I know what carminative really means.”
“Well, what DOES it mean?” asked Mr. Scogan, a little impatiently.
“Carminative,” said Denis, lingering lovingly over the syllables, “carminative. I imagined vaguely that it had something to do with carmen-carminis, still more vaguely with caro-carnis, and its derivations, like carnival and carnation. Carminative—there was the idea of singing and the idea of flesh, rose-coloured and warm, with a suggestion of the jollities of mi-Careme and the masked holidays of Venice. Carminative—the warmth, the glow, the interior ripeness were all in the word. Instead of which…”
“Do come to the point, my dear Denis,” protested Mr. Scogan. “Do come to the point.”
“Well, I wrote a poem the other day,” said Denis; “I wrote a poem about the effects of love.”
“Others have done the same before you,” said Mr. Scogan. “There is no need to be ashamed.”
“I was putting forward the notion,” Denis went on, “that the effects of love were often similar to the effects of wine, that Eros could intoxicate as well as Bacchus. Love, for example, is essentially carminative. It gives one the sense of warmth, the glow.
‘And passion carminative as wine…’
was what I wrote. Not only was the line elegantly sonorous; it was also, I flattered myself, very aptly compendiously expressive. Everything was in the word carminative—a detailed, exact foreground, an immense, indefinite hinterland of suggestion.
‘And passion carminative as wine…’
I was not ill-pleased. And then suddenly it occurred to me that I had never actually looked up the word in a dictionary. Carminative had grown up with me from the days of the cinnamon bottle. It had always been taken for granted. Carminative: for me the word was as rich in content as some tremendous, elaborate work of art; it was a complete landscape with figures.
‘And passion carminative as wine…’
It was the first time I had ever committed the word to writing, and all at once I felt I would like lexicographical authority for it. A small English-German dictionary was all I had at hand. I turned up C, ca, car, carm. There it was: ‘Carminative: windtreibend.’ Windtreibend!” he repeated. Mr. Scogan laughed. Denis shook his head. “Ah,” he said, “for me it was no laughing matter. For me it marked the end of a chapter, the death of something young and precious. There were the years—years of childhood and innocence—when I had believed that carminative meant—well, carminative. And now, before me lies the rest of my life—a day, perhaps, ten years, half a century, when I shall know that carminative means windtreibend.
‘Plus ne suis ce que j’ai ete
Et ne le saurai jamais etre.’
It is a realisation that makes one rather melancholy.”
“Carminative,” said Mr. Scogan thoughtfully.
“Carminative,” Denis repeated, and they were silent for a time. “Words,” said Denis at last, “words—I wonder if you can realise how much I love them. You are too much preoccupied with mere things and ideas and people to understand the full beauty of words. Your mind is not a literary mind. The spectacle of Mr. Gladstone finding thirty-four rhymes to the name ‘Margot’ seems to you rather pathetic than anything else. Mallarmé’s envelopes with their versified addresses leave you cold, unless they leave you pitiful; you can’t see that
‘Apte à ne point te cabrer, hue!
Poste et j’ajouterai, dia!
Si tu ne fuis onze-bis Rue
Balzac, chez cet Hérédia,’
is a little miracle.”
“You’re right,” said Mr. Scogan. “I can’t.”
“You don’t feel it to be magical?”
“That’s the test for the literary mind,” said Denis; “the feeling of magic, the sense that words have power. The technical, verbal part of literature is simply a development of magic. Words are man’s first and most grandiose invention. With language he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them! With fitted, harmonious words the magicians summoned rabbits out of empty hats and spirits from the elements. Their descendants, the literary men, still go on with the process, morticing their verbal formulas together, and, before the power of the finished spell, trembling with delight and awe. Rabbits out of empty hats? No, their spells are more subtly powerful, for they evoke emotions out of empty minds. Formulated by their art the most insipid statements become enormously significant. For example, I proffer the constatation, ‘Black ladders lack bladders.’ A self-evident truth, one on which it would not have been worth while to insist, had I chosen to formulate it in such words as ‘Black fire-escapes have no bladders,’ or, ‘Les echelles noires manquent de vessie.’ But since I put it as I do, ‘Black ladders lack bladders,’ it becomes, for all its self-evidence, significant, unforgettable, moving. The creation by word-power of something out of nothing—what is that but magic? And, I may add, what is that but literature? Half the world’s greatest poetry is simply ‘Les echelles noires manquent de vessie,’ translated into magic significance as, ‘Black ladders lack bladders.’ And you can’t appreciate words. I’m sorry for you.”
“A mental carminative,” said Mr. Scogan reflectively. “That’s what you need.”
Windtreibend is something like ‘gas-expelling.’ The whole joke is that anyone with a bit of Latin would expect carminative to relate to carmen (loosely – poem or song, spell, or charm in verse) while the actual derivation is from an unrelated rare technical verb carminare (to card wool) and the meaning is a purely medical ‘anti-flatulent’. The OED gives the derivation as carminare participial stem + ive suffix but it also seems possible the English comes via French carminatif since that one has the proper proposed path of sense as Classical Latin ‘card wool’ -> Medieval Latin ‘break up by scrubbing’ -> French ‘cleanse by purging.’
Varro has a relevant entry in De Lingua Latina (7.54) for Plautus Menaechmi 797, though his etymology is not accepted.
In The Menaechmia:
Why, you’d bid me sit among the maids at work and
card the wool.
This same word carere ‘to card’ is in the Cemetriab of Naevius. Cārĕre is from cārĕre ‘to lack,’ because then they cleanse the wool and spin it into thread, that it may carere ‘be free’ from dirt: from which the wool is said carminari ‘to be carded’ then when they carunt ‘card’ out of it that which sticks in It and is not wool, those things which in the Romulus Naeviusd calls asta, from the Oscans.
Inter ancillas sedere iubeas, lanam carere.
Idem hoc est verbum in Cemetria Naevii. Carere a carendo, quod eam tum purgant ac deducunt, ut careat spurcitia; ex quo carminari dicitur tum lana, cum ex ea carunt1 quod in ea haeret neque est lana, quae in Romulo Naevius appellat asta ab Oscis.
I’m too blown out now to gloss Mallarme’s poem-addresses.