lanai, liana

Lana is out on the lanai with a nail to align the liana – she’s an anal one about keeping her lianas in line. Liane and Ilana, please enjoin her to be lenient lest she annihilate it!

A liana on a lanai? Such soft, tropical sounds, more vowels than consonants: a liquid l, a nasal n, a pair of a’s, and that mobile i. There is something almost Polynesian about it. Well, not almost: lanai is a word from Hawai‘ian. We use it for what they use it for: an open-sided roofed structure near a house. Somehow it seems more self-conscious than verandah and ever so much more elegant than porch.

Liana also has a warm-weather sound to it, something Italian or Spanish perhaps. In fact, it has been speculated (in the OED among other places) that its form in English may have come from a belief that it was a loan from Spanish. But we got it from French, in which it was (and is) liane, coming from lier ‘bind, tie’. And what is it? A climbing vine, a plant rooted in the soil but not rising on its own strength. Lianas wrap around trees and hang between them; they also climb walls and structures such as trellises, verandahs, and lanais.

Consider the kinds of names that have these sounds or similar ones in them: Lana, Ilana, Alina, Leanne, Elaine, Eileen, Ellen, Lannie, Anil, Anna Lee, Nell, Neal – all but Anil and Neal (also Neil and Niall) are names for women (though Lannie can be a man). We do tend to end women’s names with vowels, but beyond that, it seems the soft combination of /n/ and /l/ with these vowels (low central and high front – none of those dark heavy round back vowels) has something we tend to associate with femininity. We don’t go all in on it, but you can discern a leaning.

Not that lianas and lanais are leaning. A lanai should stand straight, even though it is a dependent structure; a liana depends on other things for structure, but it has different ways of clinging. They do, however, have a different feel from their associated terms verandah and vine. Those v’s are very vibrant, but they’re less loose. (They’re also less valuable: remember that V is 5 and L is 50.) The teeth bite on /v/; the tongue taps lightly on /l/ and /n/, the only difference being in how it lets air in on the sides with /l/ (like a lanai).

We don’t quite say lanai as a rearrangement of liana, but we do spell it that way. You couldn’t readily rearrange lianas to make a lanai, though: they’re not sturdy enough – in fact, unlike trees and shrubs, which have flexible younger parts and more rigid older parts, lianas are more flexible in the older parts. Which seems good to me: getting more flexible as you get older – and, in another way of looking at it, getting more open, like becoming a lanai – is a way to a happier life. It also helps you to recognize that you never truly stand alone.

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