(No knitting content in this post whatsoever, by the way–though a few links to thread and fiber.)

Gjertrud Schnackenberg has a fantastic poem called Supernatural Love that ties together paternal love, carnations, cloves, childhood, blood, needles, nails, and Jesus Christ, through an intricate web of metaphor, definitions, and etymology, everything tied tightly into rhyming triplets. A simple enough little scene: while a child cross-stitches “Beloved”, her father looks up “carnation” in the dictionary; but you have to read the whole poem to see the beautiful connections.

“Word-roots blossom in speechless messages

The way the thread behind my sampler does
Where following each X I awkward move

My needle through the word whose root is love…”

I was looking at a bunch of cilantro in our kitchen the other day, and after looking up a few related words, I kept thinking of this poem.

Cilantro and coriander are two seasonings that come from the same plant–cilantro is the name for the fresh green leaves that have a soapy flavor to some, and coriander the name for the plump, round khaki-brown seeds. When I lived in Venice ten years ago, then, it made sense to me that the word for “cilantro” in Italian would be the same as the word for “coriander,” coriandolo.

When I lived there, I had to adjust the way I cooked, the way I thought of seasonings. There was one Mexican restaurant in Venice at the time, and it was really a pretty poor excuse for one–Mexican food (nor any other “ethnic” food, really) had not taken hold in that city, possibly nowhere in the country. I loved making fresh salsa: just a simple mixture of diced tomatoes, onion, cilantro, lime juice, and salt, but it was hard to find cilantro there.  It wasn’t in the local greengrocer’s (fruttivendolo, what a pleasing word) and so if I needed some, I would walk down to the Rialto market from my home near the Chiesa dei Frari and head for the one stall in the market that sold it.

It never looked very good–always overgrown, nearly going to seed, with the flat, broad, Italian parsley-shaped leaves interspersed with flower stalks and long, feathery tendrils that looked more like dill or anise. But it was the best I would get without growing it myself, not an option when there were four of us sharing a yardless walkup apartment of about 500 square feet.

The word for confetti in Italian was not (as you might think) “confetti,” but coriandoli, as in the plural of coriandolo. I always wondered if there were some connection between the words or if it was mere coincidence. In my mind, I always attributed it to the festive-looking harlequin mixture of flat notched leaves and feathery fronds shooting out above like fireworks.

I never looked it up, though, and hadn’t thought about it for years.

We bought a bunch of cilantro at the farmer’s market this last weekend. It was sitting in a glass in the kitchen, and as I walked past it I saw a few of the dill-like feathery leaves sticking up above the normal ones. Between that and the Fourth of July fireworks blossoming outside, I thought again of coriandoli and decided–now that I have broadband instead of that old setup from the Italian apartment, dial-up and a metered telephone measuring the time on the line in clicks–that I would look it up and find out once and for all what the connection there was.

According to the Italian Wikipedia entry, confetti were once coated coriander seeds–hence the name coriandoli made perfect sense.

They went from just coriander seeds to balls of chalk or colored paper and finally, in 1875, a Milanese engineer named Enrico Mangili di Crescenzago began to sell what we think of today as confetti, little circles of paper. These were a byproduct of perforated paper cards used in sericulture for raising silkworms. (Fiber arts connection! How these perforated cards were used, I’m not quite sure–perhaps as lids for the boxes containing the pupae?) Now coriandoli are thrown along with stelle filanti, “shooting stars,” the poetic (to my Anglophone ears) name for paper streamers.

The word confetti, on the other hand, in Italian refers to what I think of as Jordan almonds–the big bland almonds with a hard pastel sugar coating. Originally, in the Renaissance, actual candy was thrown at Carnevale; at some point apparently these candies went from almonds to tiny sugar-coated coriander seeds, and then to bits of chalk. We kept the original name confetti (related, of course, to the word “confection,” which you can now clearly see via the almond candy connection) rather than coriandoli, even as the type of festive small item evolved from candy to paper.

And the last lovely little trivia thread to tie in: the earliest attested etymological root for the word “coriander” is from Mycenaean Greek, written in Minoan Linear B, and might be related to the name Ariadne–she who saved Theseus from the labyrinth with a ball of yarn.

(The cilantro was delicious, by the way–chopped with fresh mint and tossed into a Southeast Asian-style salad of sauteed beef and mushrooms, over lettuce, dressed with lime zest/juice, brown sugar, jalapenos, and fish sauce.)

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