How does a dauphin deftly move a delphinium from Delft to Delphi? On a dolphin, of course.

OK, no, this is not some bizarre form of delf-punishment. (Or perhaps it is, but still…) And it is not without porpoise. I mean purpose. It just happens that delphin is one word that has swum around quite a bit.

Delphin? Indeed. No, it’s not a dolphin with its eye half-closed (e rather than o). Or, well, it is, but it’s also one with its eyes open, or both closed, or… Delphin is simply the original form of dolphin; it’s the Greek etymon as well as an uncommon English word, and it means, yes, that famous cetacean, the marine mammal family that includes bottlenoses and orcas (yes, that’s right, “killer whales” are dolphins). Flipper.

And just as the family of dolphins includes quite a variety of flipping critters, so, too, does the family of delphin involve quite a flippin’ few words. Delphinium, the flower also known as larkspur, apparently appears like a dolphin when the flower is opening. The dauphin, the eldest son of the king of France, took his designation from what was originally the given name of one person – who was named after the critter. Delphi, home of the Greek oracle, may have been named after the dolphin form in which Apollo first arrived at the place (quite the task given that it’s in the mountains), and/or it may have taken its name from the Greek for “womb”, delphys, which in its turn is also the source for Greek delphin (it was seen as a fish with a womb, it seems). And Delft? Ah, sorry, had to delve elsewhere for that one: it’s from the Dutch for “canal”, which comes from a word for “dig” cognate with, yes, delve.

I may as well also say that dolphins are not related to Philadephia (though undoubtedly this resemblance is why the word delphin causes me to think of cream cheese). Oh, there is an etymological relation; the adelph in the city name comes from Greek adelphos “brother”, which is formed from morphemes for “same” and “womb”. But don’t go to Philly looking for dolphins. May I suggest Miami for that purpose.

There are several other words that begin with delphin, too: delphinate, a salt of delphinic acid, and also a variant of dauphinate, the jurisdiction of a dauphin; delphinic acid, inactive valeric acid, discovered in dolphin-oil; delphine, another word for delphinium, for delphin, or for delphinine; delphinine, adjective, belonging to the dolphin family, or noun, a highly poisonous alkaloid derived from the delphinium; delphinestrian, one who rides a dolphin (of course); delphinidin, an anthocyanidin antioxidant that is an important pigment in cranberries, concord grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, pomegranates, and flowers, including larkspur (naturally); delphinite, an obsolete name for the mineral epidote; delphinoid, like a dolphin; delphinoidine, an alkaloid derived from (what else) the larkspur (you do remember that larkspur equals delphinium, yes?); and Delphinus, a Latin name for a dolphin-shaped constellation.

So, then, you may be wondering what’s with this move from delphin to dolphin. Was the word just too stuffed full? Well, the Latin delphinus (the Greek plus an us) came over time to be dalphinus (an unsurprising vowel shift that I hear even now from young Canadian women, among others), and this led to French daulphin, whence both dauphin and the English daulphyne, which simplified in spelling to modern dolphin. All English’s delphin forms have simply gone straight back to the Greek.

But do the different words, delphin and dolphin, give you a different aesthetic sense of this animal? I feel dolphin as colder and harder, and it brings echoes of doll, golf, and Adolph; delphin is softer and smoother for me (and spreadable, of course), and echoes elfin and self and perhaps Delsey (makers of suitcases), an may be echoed in assorted names, even perhaps Elaine Phillips, who just happens to have suggested tasting this word in the first place.

3 responses to “delphin

  1. Israel "izzy" Cohen

    I suspect that “pilot” is a reversal of delphin. The pilot whale is a true dolphin. This may be due to the proclivity of dolphins to swim ahead of sailing ships as if they were indicating the direction to go.

  2. In my neglected garden I still have larkspur which are annuals that re-seed themselves. Since moving south I no longer have delphiniums. Delphs as we often call them are true perennials, much more substantial and striking than larkspur yet lacking larkspur’s lovely airy quality — perhaps similar to the lovely airy quality of delphins jumping in the water. I love the delphine spelling, going to use it to add a Delphic quality to my writing while hoping it won’t interfere with desire to communicate clearly. Thanks for another nice word voyage.

    • Interesting. Obviously I don’t actually grow flowers (I do, however, have three massive poinsettias, friendly like St. Bernards, as well as a couple of philodeondrons that sometimes eat visitors to my desk). The reference source I looked at declared that all delphiniums are larkspurs, but that larkspur is also used to name some flowers that are not delphinia.

      Thanks for the compliments!

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