Daily Archives: July 21, 2013


Does this word look like it needs – or has had – a little manhandling? Perhaps it was meant to be handling me or hand mingle but somehow lost its grip? Morphologically it’s modestly mystifying: there’s that ing that could be a verb ending, but it’s part of a ling that could be the old English suffix (as in earthling), but then there’s that ­dh – perhaps this is mand plus heling? But is that heling really healing or part of inhaling or what? And what mandates the mand? This seems like a curious mixture, perhaps an orphan word.

It may, however, seem familiar. It might give you a faint hint of almonds in the sound, but there’s another word that it’s often seen with that may make it more recognizable: Sumatra.

Sumatra, yes, that island of Indonesia. What do they grow there? Where do you see a label that says Sumatra Mandheling (or any of a few other spellings)? On coffee, usually in a coffee establishment.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. There are a few things that are often tasted with notes and fancy little rhapsodic descriptors. Wine, of course, is one. Words are another. People do it now with beer, though that can get a little precious. But, ah, yes, also coffee. We like to talk about the flavour of our drugs.

And Mandheling is a rather nice drug as they go. It is full flavoured, rich, spicy. Aw, heck, let me quote some tasting notes from different places on their particular versions of Sumatra Mandheling:

A uniquely rich and aromatic cup – spicy and gently acidic, with a truly rare body. (Balzac’s Coffee)

A creamy body and loamy sweet flavors. It also has all the wild jungle flavors and earthiness you would expect in a Sumatra. (Gen X Coffee)

A traditional volcanic and earthy Indonesian profile is complemented by bittersweet chocolate and subtle cherry and raisin notes. A sassy and spicy finish adds to the balance of this full-bodied, yet mildly acidic coffee. (The Roasterie)

This coffee sounds like my kind of coffee (it is). Heck, it sounds like my kind of person. Sassy, spicy, earthy, mildly acidic, a creamy and truly rare body, and perhaps bittersweet? What’s not to like, I say! To have such a taste as you are inhaling its healing aromas…

So, now, where does it get its name? It’s an alternate spelling of Mandailing, which is the name of a people in northern Sumatra. They don’t actually grow this coffee; there was just some confusion by an early European buyer of the coffee, it seems. Thus the word and its sense have both undergone some manhandling. But where does the word Mandailing come from? It is thought to come from mande ‘mother’ and hilang ‘lost’ – ‘lost mother’, in other words. Just as the word has become separated from its mother and joined another family. At least it’s in good company.


I first encountered this word in a context where it named a thing from the dark mists of many centuries past in Eastern Europe, a mode of inscription of incantations to be seen by candlelight in dim ancient churches in forgotten valleys. Well, there it is: sometimes you learn about things first in horror movies.

And of course there are certain stereotypical images of medieval Slavonic churches. Even in the daylight, old Croatia, old Bulgaria, and thereabouts appear to the western mind as a place of tall rustic hats and rough clothes, stooped peasants and mildewy superstitions. Actually we can assume that the people then and there did find ways to enjoy their lives like people in most places and times. And the Glagolitic alphabet was for them not simply some collection of elaborately twisted sigils unlocking mystical verses for the illuminated.

Heck, an important thing about Glagolitic is that in Dalmatia (part of Croatia) it represented a very modern touch: the churches there, as of AD 1248, had permission to use their own language in the church service, and that language was written in the alphabet given it by Saints Cyril and Methodius. It is true that most people in that time and place would not have been able to read, but the scriptures and rites it recorded were hardly dark and foreign, let alone incomprehensible, for the people there and then. (Old Church Slavonic over time did become old and mystical and strange, just because the vernacular had changed; rituals always start as something fresh but, like the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, are valued by many precisely because of accumulated centuries of obscurity – a prophet is without honour in his home town, and a ritual is weaker if you can understand it clearly.)

The Glagolitic alphabet spread over much of Eastern Europe. But it was replaced in the common speech with the Cyrillic alphabet and, in some countries (such as Croatia), the Latin alphabet. So now it really does seem to our eyes like something hiding under the stairs in the dim basement of time. Have a look at it: www.omniglot.com/writing/glagolitic.htm .

It’s not helped, to Anglophone ears at least, by the sound of the name. To my ears, it certainly sounds dark and gigantic – or should I say gargantuan. We may think of the gulags – actually GULag prisons, if we wish to be etymological about it – or about glug, goggle, gaggle, blag, agglutinate, Golgi apparatus, ugly, stalagmite, Gollum… You can get pretty far into it. Because it’s a proper noun, the two g’s don’t look the same, and it dips down to a low g between the uprights of the l’s, then spatters off at the end with the dots of the i’s and the lower ascender of the t. The back-tongue voiced stops /g/ and the liquids /l/ give way to a crisper, almost glittering pair of voiceless stops /t/ /k/. The whole word goes three times between tongue back and tip.

But it’s foreign to us. It speaks to Slavic ears. Even the most foreign tongue is native to its speakers, and what seems dark is as clear as day. In Old Church Slavonic – once the vernacular of its land – the verb glagoliti means ‘speak’. You will hear and understand if you know how to listen.