Friday, 5 February 2016

Je Suis Circonflexe - et Nénuphar aussi

That Laputan institution the Académie Française has been at it again, with the usual chaotic results. The impending loss of the circumflex - that dinky little hat that is everyone's favourite (and can be helpful in translating into English, as it often denotes a missing 's') - is causing particular outrage, as well it might. Most of the other changes seem either pointless or mad. 'Ognon' for 'oignon' - what's that about? And one in particular seems rather sad - 'Nénuphar' (water lily), one of the most beautiful words in French, is to become 'Nénufar' for no good reason at all.
 'Nenuphar' is a word that has its place in English poetry - in Oscar Wilde's overwrought poem The Sphinx, a high water mark of Decadent verse:

      'Or did huge Apis from his car
           Leap down and lay before your feet
           Big blossoms of the honey-sweet
       And honey-coloured Nenuphar?'

Wilde owed the rhyme to his young friend and admirer Robert Sherard, who suggested it when Oscar told him of his struggle to find a suitable 'ar' rhyme for this particular quatrain of The Sphinx. Sherard was touchingly proud of his contribution, writing that 'On the day when I had found 'nenuphar' for the wanting rhyme, I was made as proud by his thanks as though I had achieved great things in literature.' Which he never did; Sherard's chief claim to fame is that he was the first biographer of Oscar Wilde (The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, privately printed in 1902) - a subject to which he frequently returned. But he was also 'the man who thought of Nenuphar'.


  1. As a retired French teacher I'm utterly with you on nénuphar - the sheer exoticism of it. The completely useless circonflexe, for purely utilitarian reasons, should go but it's so redolent of gallicism......

  2. Strange for the French not to know their oignons.