Dot Wordsworth

When Google can’t help you

Mobile-less with the mystery of the mandorla

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‘Ask your telephone,’ said my husband satirically when I made an innocent enquiry on a point of fact. My telephone was having a little rest, since it had run out of juice in the annoyingly capricious way these machines have. But my husband had unwittingly hit upon a trend in modern culture: that we hardly know anything if we are deprived of the help of Mr Google and his friends.

Last week I was standing outside St Fin Barre’s cathedral (in Cork) and someone was pointing out the angel on the central gable of the west facade, which the architect William Burges had wanted to be a figure of Christ in Judgment, until the good Protestants of the city vetoed it. The angel stands in a pointed oval frame of stone. ‘That’s a mandorla,’ observed a friend, ‘or do I mean mandala?’ Whichever it was, no one could remember, on the spot, where the words were accented. Without the internet we were clueless in Cork.

Once back with my Oxford English Dictionary in 20 comfortingly papery volumes, I was able to verify that mandala was stressed on the first syllable and meant: ‘A symbolic circular figure, usually with symmetrical divisions and figures of deities, etc, in the centre, used in Buddhism and other religions as a representation of the universe’. It comes from the Sanskrit for ‘disc’. No one used it in English before the German-born professor of philology Max Müller, in 1859.

What we were after was mandorla, also stressed on the first syllable, meaning: ‘An almond-shaped panel or decorative space, usually framing an image of Christ’. It is the Italian for ‘almond’ and did not come into English usage till even later, 1883, in a book on Italian sculpture by C.C. Perkins.

There is no philological connection between these two words. Our word almond comes circuitously, like mandorla, from the Greek amygdale (which also gives us the technical term amygdala, used from 1889 for the basal ganglia in each cerebral hemisphere). A pronunciation of almond with an ‘l’ is erroneously derived from the spelling. The etymological history of almond is fantastically complicated. Almond for philologists, as St Fin Barre’s cathedral for architectural historians, is a corker.