Vanilla

Once again I have been at the dictionaries. Once again, perhaps a bit too much. I was baking some un kurabiyesi tonight, flour cookies, to which I added some vanilla. And being an English teacher, I thought – hmm, where does that word come from? Vanilla. A distinct flavor, so remarkable that it is often the most prominent flavor that lingers on the tongue when you take a bite of a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Not the chocolate, no, but the vanilla. Quite powerful, almost seductive, wouldn’t you say?

And speaking of seductive – yes, this is where we get back to the dictionaries – the word vanilla derives from the Latin vagina. No, I am not so tasteless as to suggest a similarity in flavor. I doubt that anyone would, apart from a few overzealous hedonists. A philosophy, by the way, born of Greek pleasure-seeking, although many seem to associate hedonism with Roman extremism. Oh, there were quite a few intemperant Romans to be sure. But even the Romans, despite all their wild orgiastic adventures, never associated the flavors of vanilla and vagina. Did they?

No, you see for the Romans, the word vagina indicated not a flavor or even a function but a shape – the sheath. Which makes you wonder how that visually enticing connection came about. Perhaps from some macho Roman soldier boasting to his brethren of how, having wandered far and wide in the service of the empire, he had returned home to sheath his manly sword at a local brothel.

Roman soldiers wandered quite a bit, didn’t they? Like determined vagabonds. Another Latin term, although this one does not stem from the Latin vagina, despite the fact that men throughout history have found themselves wandering determinedly back again and again to the mighty sheath. No, vagabond stems from the Latin vagus, which also gave birth to such modern English terms as vagrant and vague, of which the word vagary is synonymous with caprice. Something that women are stereotyped as expressing in abundance.

Which suggests that, at least in more modern terms, vagus and vagina share a sisterhood within womanhood. Even though the word woman, an expression of the feminine, absolutely derives from the masculine – wo+man. Woman in Old English was wimman, a variation of wifman – the wife of man. Nothing vague about that, I think. Sexist, yes, but hardly vague. Rather smacks of that macho Roman soldier boasting of his conquests, doesn’t it? Funny word – smack. A synonym for taste. A distinctive flavor. And you just can’t get more distinctive than the alluring, almost womanly essence of vanilla. Which goes great in flour cookies!

You should give it a try.

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