I was recently looking at the website of a pharmacy chain and noticed a product advertised, oblipicha mask.

What mask? I almost took off my glasses to look again. The arrangement of letters was unexpected.


Hmm. It’s a spiky little bush of a word. Starts with ob as in obscure and obelisk, obl as in obloquy, obli as in oblique. After an opening zero there is a blip. I see lip; I see lipi as in lipid; I see ip as in ipecac; I see pic; I see pich as in almost pitch and rearranged chip; I see ic; I see cha as in cha-cha and the Mandarin and Japanese words for ‘tea’; I see ha. The word has three ascenders and two dots plus, in the middle, a sole descender. It almost looks like an infernal machine designed to input an o and output an a.

Given the context – a nourishing hair mask (hair mask? that’s a thing now?) – and the fact that it’s an exotic and eye-twisting word, sort of like ylang-ylang, I can assume it’s some herbal thing.

So I Google it, of course.

Google asks me if I meant obliphica and gives me 460,000 results for that. When I say I wanted oblipicha I see 98,200 results for that. Hmm. So which is the misspelling? Or are they both possible transliterations? I look at a couple of results.

At the blog Take Nina’s Word for It, I enjoy reading this bit that proves yet again that I am not barking up the wrong tree with word tasting: “To me, Obliphica has a very unappealing ring to it, some weird combination of ‘obligation’ and ‘fichsa’ (literally: yuck!). Therefore it translates in my brain as ‘…this obligatory yucky stuff will do wonders for your complexion…’”

But another hit gives me the valuable information I really want: this word is transliterated from Russian oблепиха. Now, you probably don’t read Cyrillic, so I’ll tell you an important fact: Russian has a letter for the sound “ch” like in English “chip,” and it has a letter for the sound “ch” like in German “ach” and Scottish “loch.” That latter sound is normally transliterated as kh from Russian for clarity, or as h because it’s not always quite as harsh as the German or Scots versions. In this word, it is the latter letter that is used: like kh or h. Also, the vowel after the l character is an e but the Russian e usually has palatalization before it (so the word for ‘no’, which looks like it might be transliterated as net, is – as you probably know – said “nyet,” with the “ny” like a Spanish ñ). Which means that this word is better transliterated as oblepikha or oblyepikha or oblepiha or oblyepiha. Which get 10,800, 1, 59,700, and 9 results, respectively. That palatalized e can also sound a bit like a “short” i, giving oblipikha or oblipiha, with 152 and 3110 results, respectively.

Or you could just call it sea buckthorn (not to be confused with non-sea buckthorn, a different species). Or sallowthorn, seaberry, sandthorn, Sanddorn, argousier, finbar, homoktövis, dhar-bu, tindved, rokitnik, or Hippophae, depending on what your marketing department thinks is best. I actually kinda like sea buckthorn just fine. It has a spiky cowboy-sailor feel to it.

So why oble– oblye– obli– um, obliterate that with that Russian word? Let’s take Nina’s word for it: “The most recent ubiquitous ‘wonder’ oil is Obliphica oil. Note, however, that this name appears mostly on Israeli websites as well as on eBay, by people (Israelis?) trying to sell hair care products.” Why would Israelis use a Russian word? Because Israel has a sizable Russian population – when Israel started offering citizenship to anyone who was Jewish by birth, a lot of Russian Jews took them up on it and moved there. They speak Hebrew in Israel, of course, but if they need a word for something they don’t know a Hebrew word for, why not use a Russian word?

Sea buckthorn has been used in various cultures for various healing effects for ages and ages. It has a lot of vitamins C and E and assorted other antioxidants, and it produces some oils that are apparently nice to use on the face and hair and some juice that you can drink. So there it is. Where? In a hair product or face cream near you.

Actually, most of the world’s cultivated sea buckthorn – or oblipicha, or whatever oblique picture of a word you want – is in China. It’s planted there for soil and water conservation. It grows, you see, in places other plants will not: deserts, and also that bit of the shore so close to the sea spray that other plants can’t hack it. Once you’re away from the harsh environment, the other plants outcompete the sea buckthorn. So this spiky deciduous dioecious shrub with slivery silvery-green leaves and orange berries (those are the useful, nutritious part) is found in an assortment of unfriendly environments. And probably doesn’t give a damn what you call it.

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