arabesque

My incredibly beautiful wife is an incredibly beautiful dancer and an even more incredibly beautiful figure skater. She spent her 20s as a professional figure skater, she has a level 2 skating coaching certification, and she has an MA in dance. So naturally, she’s the first person I turn to for help tasting a word like this.

I walked into the bedroom just now. She was sprawled on the bed, half-covered in papers, watching TV. I awkwardly raised my right leg, awkwardly canted forward, attempted to maintain my balance while holding my body in a T of which the vertical was one leg, the crossbar my torso and the other leg. “What’s this?” I asked.

“In dance, arabesque,” she said. “In skating, spiral. In gymnastics, scale.”

“Why is it called an arabesque?”

She looked vaguely guilty. “I don’t know…” She smiled slightly and shrugged. “Are you going to take away my MA now?”

I came back out to see if I could find out what a T-shaped dance position had to do with Arabs.

Yes, arabesque does mean “Arabian”; it’s not some coincidence. And it’s a nice, ornamental word, too, long, with many curves, and the well-balanced ascender and descender in the b and q, well suited to ornaments in calligraphy.

Now, we may do calligraphy, but, really, no one does calligraphy better than Arabic calligraphers. The sinuous, cursive forms of their alphabet lend themselves well to it, and the Islamic proscription on iconic (pictorial) art (observed with varying stringency, but in some quarters adhered to absolutely) led to a great efflorescence of calligraphic and geometric ornamentation. The artistic impulse will out, after all, even with strict constraints, and many a mosque has myriad motifs in repeating linear and polygonal forms. This style of design, as it happens, is quite reasonably called Arabesque.

Naturally, the design charmed Europeans who saw it, and they copied it. Well, in their own way, with their own historical influences and without the constraints of a proscription on iconicity. Swirling, twining forms – what could those lend to? Well, a more literal efflorescence, with leaves and branches and all that. Other extended uses have followed, typically with reference to ornamentation, orientality, or both. Arabesque, for instance, also names a musical form that is brief and ornamental.

And so, in 1830, we find (with some help from Oxford) in C. Blasis’ Code of Terpsichore the following:

Nothing can be more agreeable to the eye than those charming positions which we call arabesques, and which we have derived from antique basso relievos, from a few fragments of Greek paintings, and from the paintings in fresco at the Vatican, executed after the beautiful designs of Raphael.

In other words, it seems that the position is named after figures in artwork taken by Europeans as being Arabesque, though actually it wasn’t necessarily all that Arabesque. (Hardly the first national misnomer ever!)

The word rolls about in the mouth nicely, first with the liquid [r] and then flowing from front to back: [b], [s], [k]. The word, of course, makes one think of Arab and perhaps of Moorish architecture, but also carries foody tones of bisque and barbecue (though the object may be more like a curlicue).

My wife has come out to explain the skating part further. “It’s a spiral,” she says, “because you’re on a curve. You’re on one foot – you’re always on one foot – and you’re skating a curve.”

“And in gymnastics it’s a scale because it looks like a set of scales,” I hypothesize. She agrees that this makes sense.

“So if that’s a spiral,” I ask, “what’s a camel?”

“When you spin,” she says. “And if you hop from one foot to the other when entering, it’s a flying camel.”

Which could present a rather scary picture – if one put oneself in the shoes (or sandals) of an Arabesque person. No wonder Aladdin preferred a carpet.


Today’s word was originally requested by Elaine Phillips.

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