Tag Archives: labdanum


The screen goes black for a moment. Then, in the darkness, a single curving line of a lambent red. Behind, you hear a rumble of a drum: labdanum!

The red grows, and we see that it is a bottle, emerging. Its top is a defiant metallic grey, molybdenum maybe. Again the rumbling thunder of the drum, a cretic foot struck on a taiko: labdanum! And we see… the bottle is shaped like a red fist… it contains perfume, no, cologne, no, a scent so manly and musky that none may muster the speech to capture it. Only once more the drum: LABDANUM!

Not that any perfume or cologne would be made solely of labdanum, of course. Its woody, musky, leathery, animal scent is added to the mix to make many a scent. Whatever its notes on the nose, the wearers may hope it will be as intoxicating as laudanum, a substance that, like labdanum, is also called ladanum, and, like labdanum, may be traced back to pretty little flowers.

Oh, yes, indeedy. While laudanum (tincture of opium) comes from poppies, labdanum is extracted from the rockrose. It used to be collected by brushing the fur of goats that had grazed on and by the rockrose. Sometimes the hair, soaked in labdanum, was cut off and formed into a false beard – that’s what the Egyptian pharaohs wore (along with their pschent).

Now the collection is a bit more direct, of course. But the word has nonetheless taken an indirect route. Does it look Latin? Of course it does. But Latin got it from Greek λαδανον (as in “[sniff] I smell a lad anon!”). Somewhere in medieval Latin the /b/ got inserted, and sometimes it was a /p/ instead (may a man wonder if lapdanum will get him a lapdance?). It is unrelated to laudanum.

This word, along with its rubbing bd (like a goat’s belly on a bush), its lab that resonates of science and black dogs, and its num that is either yummy or insensate, brings to my mind (if not to yours) the Russian name of the fish that the lead character in Gogol’s The Government Inspector is so impressed with that he declaims it loudly: labardan! (Put the stress on the end!) But labdanum, while impressive, is not so fishy (ambergris and musk, maybe, but not salt cod from Aberdeeen, which is what labardan was), nor is it, um, a bland scent for a numb lad. Don’t get it mixed up. And don’t think about pretty little red and white flowers. The fist thumps its amphimacer one more time, the resin resonating: LABDANUM!