“Celadon,” I explained to my niece Evangeline, “is the colour you get if you cross celery and a mastodon.”
Which, really, is almost true: if you were to look at the bedsheets Evie’s mother was considering, you would agree that they were a pale greyish-green, although really more towards cactus than celery. (The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “a pale shade of green resembling that of the willow” but many a Canadian would probably sooner associate it with goose poop.) But I was quick to clarify that that was not the actual origin of the word. (I think I was quick to. I don’t intentionally fill children’s minds with easily falsified confections.)
What is the origin? It’s nothing to do with the salad on your plate, happily (the last salad I ate of that colour forced a pre-emptive review shortly after). It also has nothing to do with teeth – the suffix that connectes beasts with teeth is –odon, as in mastodon, or –odont, as in “O don’t show me those awful green teeth again.”
Nor does it have to do with Celoron, which is a town (legally a village – in New York, a town is a subdivision of a county, not a civic unit like a village or city) next to Jamestown, New York, on Chautauqua Lake, not so far from the stamping grounds of my mother’s salad days. Celoron isn’t much of a muchness now, but it’s where Lucille Ball grew up, and it used to have one heck of an amusement park. Look at this:
(Coincidentally, I’m sure, that film has a bit of a celadon cast to it.)
Where did Celoron get its name? For a while I was under the impression it was from the roller-coaster – that does seem like a name for a roller-coaster, doesn’t it? A thing that accelerates? Sort of like Celeron, which is a kind of microprocessor made by Intel – for all I know, you may be viewing this with the aid of one. But no, the roller-coaster wasn’t named the Celoron; it was called the Greyhound. The village was named after a French officer who explored the region, staked French claims, hectored English settlers, and alienated some of his Iroquois travelling companions: Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville. After lumbering about like some mastodon for a while, he finished up in Montréal.
He had nothing to do with celadon.
No, celadon relates to something massive and historical and maybe a bit hairy, but it’s not a mastodon; it has its ups and downs, but it’s not a roller-coaster; it comes from France, but it’s not an explorer… It’s a book. A series of books. A novel of some 5400 pages in six parts, published between 1607 and 1627, even more digressive than this word tasting note. Its author: Honoré d’Urfé. Its title (and eponymous heroine): L’Astrée. Its hero: her lover, a shepherd named Céladon, who was as fond of wearing pale green ribbons as the later fictional heroines Trilby and Fedora were of wearing hats. The name Celadon was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where it is borne by two separate chaps (one in book V, one in book XII) who have in common that they appear just for the purpose of being slaughtered in the same sentence as they are first (and last) named, a rather shorter fictional course than the later French name-bearer.
It happens that d’Urfé’s novel was very popular around the time that jade-green glazed pottery from China first hit the market in France. Some suggest that the pottery was originally called Saladin, not because you put salad in it (and let us not speak again of salad of the colour celadon) but because of some historical association with the sultan of that name. But one way or another, it – the colour and the pottery – ended up with the name of d’Urfé’s green-ribboned shepherd. And the colour is now used on other things, such as kitchen cupboards, bathroom walls, and bedsheets.
And if you have something celadon among your possessions and you do not fancy it, you can always celadon ebay.