Monday, July 13, 2015

Pro- or Antimacassar?

Police arrested a man for smuggling 21 rare yellow-crested cockatoos from the Indonesian island of Macassar, Sulawesi, or what used to be called the Celebes. Macassar is an ethno-linguistic group whose name springs from the word Mangkasara, meaning “people who behave frankly.” 

Macassar, or more precisely, antimacassar, was a  prominent word in nineteenth and early twentieth century English—not so much now. It is the word for a cloth placed over the backs, and sometimes also the arms, of chairs and sofas to prevent soiling of the upholstery. What was most likely to soil it in those days was macassar oil, a greasy hair tonic manufactured from ingredients—cocoanut oil, ylang-ylang oil, and other fragrant plant substances—that originally came from Macassar.
Antimacassars were initially made of stiff crochet-work, but later were fashioned from softer embroidered pieces of fabric or lace. They are still regularly found on the seatbacks of airliners, trains, and buses.

Those rare cockatoos, incidentally, were being transported in plastic water bottles, into which the birds had been crammed. Cockatoo, a type of parrot, is a word from the Dutch kaketoe, from Malay kakatua, possibly echoic of the sound made by the bird, or from the Malay kakak (“brother or sister”) and tua (“old”).  Its spelling is influenced by the English word cock. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou carries his own antimacassar with him wherever he goes. It’s used to protect his head from staining by the squalid surroundings in which he often rests it.

     They neglected to use an antimacassar
     On furniture bought for the college at Vassar,
             And the gunk from her hair
             That she left on his chair
     Led one student to doubt her professor would pass her.

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