If you’ve read my note on aglet, you know already that this is a word for something that needs a name but doesn’t have it, but actually does. It’s something you see every day and might just occasionally wonder what to call. Don’t you just love those? Ha. As in they get up your nose.
Looking at this word, you can see classical origins – or perhaps pseudo-classical, in the mode of the Victorian/Edwardian era fads for inventions and fancies such as phlogiston and names such as Phineas. That ph bespeaks a Greek origin, probably brought down to us by way of Latin. And, come to think of it, that whole phil looks phamiliar – excuse me, familiar. Perhaps related to the Greek philos “love”, as in philosophy “love of wisdom”, Philadelphia “place of brotherly love”, and Philip “person with a lip shaped like the letter phi (φ)” – sorry, no, it’s from Philippos “horse lover”.
On the other hand, it also makes me think of plectrum, which is a fancy word for pick as in guitar pick – that triangular thing you use to provoke strings to vibrate. If music be the food, of love, pick on! And if it’s really groovy, take your pick.
Take your pick and do what? Or take your pick of what? How about taking your pick of people with upper lips with grooves in them? Well, that’s kind of everybody, isn’t it… though some people’s grooves are more pronounced than others. I tend to think of Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0TYun-Nq1Q for a version of the “Head Over Heels” video with lyrics describing the action – a digression but really funny), though his isn’t really abnormally pronounced; I did know a few other guitar pickers around that time who looked as though they had vertical equal signs under their noses. It always seemed kind of self-important to me, which is in some sense the opposite of groovy.
Anyway, yes, where I’m going with this is that the groove in your upper lip – anyone’s upper lip (except some with fetal alcohol syndrome) – coming down from the nose is called the philtrum. Some legends say it’s where an angel touches a baby’s lip before birth. But others relate it to Aphrodite (you will see the ph balance going up here, and that’s not baseless). Philtrum is a Latin word meaning not only “groove in the upper lip” but also “love potion” – taken from the Greek philtron, which has the same two meanings. The “love potion” meaning is now normally spelled philtre – although, frankly, love potions are more likely to bear the legend unfiltered these days. And then you can nose them, wafting the scent up past your philtrum. And feel groovy (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBQxG0Z72qM for that musical reference – though neither Simon nor Garfunkel has a pronounced philtrum).