Caesar Lips

Poppysmic /po’pizmik/ Adj.

I like this word for a lot of reasons. It is arguably the rarest word in English, having first been recorded by James Joyce in the stage directions of Ulysses where he directs the character Florry to “[whisper] lovewords murmur, liplapping loudly, poppysmic plopslop”. As much as I would love to tell you that I found this beautiful word whilst casually perusing Ulysses on a stormy Saturday afternoon that would be a lie. I have a far more fond memory of discovery when it comes to poppysmic and that is why it is my first entry here.

I was dating a girl (who happens to now be my girlfriend and the love of my life) and she told me about a movie she’d seen where a character wrote rare words in obscure places. From memory the purpose of this conversation was to confirm whether or not I, in my expert linguistic opinion, knew if poppysmic was a real word. She then, however, got coy and wouldn’t tell me the word nor the movie. Unperturbed I did a bit of hunting around on the internet (with barely a clue to start with) and found both the movie (Love Happens) and the etymology and definition of this very intriguing lexeme. It seems that Ulysses, Love Happens and a Belfast Telegraph review of said movie are the only pieces of literature to ever have featured this gem.

It came in to English by the French popisme and before that the Latin poppysma. What I love about this is apparently the Romans used the term to describe a sound made by smacking one’s lips in a taut sort of kissing manner, particularly during sex, that signified enjoyment. The image of some toga-adorned Caesar-like character doing this befuddles me every time it comes to mind. Why is it that they chose that particular way to express themselves? Was moaning, swearing to Jupiter and Venus and the odd grunt too barbaric? Were they perhaps too eager in blowing kisses to their sexual partners? I can’t seem to avoid these questions when confronted with the etymology.

And nowadays of course the closest we have to this is somewhat unsettling given its origin. The clucking, kiss kiss sound you make to call over a cat or encourage a horse? Poppysmic.

Think of that next time you’re enticing Mittens to come and sit on your lap.

The cherry on top for me is the onomatopoeic nature of the word. That sharp ‘pop’ your lips make forming the sound of the voiceless bilabial stop /p/, not once but twice, could easily be described as poppysmic.

To be honest I don’t see why this word is so rare – here’s hoping it’s about to see a comeback.


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