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Saturday, 20 June 2015


Carmine is neither an opera nor a gangster. Carmine is a red colouring matter, now derived from the cochineal beetle, often said to have been first prepared by a Franciscan monk at Pisa and manufacture began in 1650. In fact, the name comes from qirmiz, the Arabic and Persian name for Coccus ilicis, a relative of the cochineal beetle, which gives us kermes, the name of the evergreen oak, Quercus coccifera (merely Latin for 'Coccus-bearing oak') on which these beetles were found. The genus name for the beetles, by the way, is just the Latin word for 'scarlet'.

The alternative name for the red dye, or for the scarlet grain insect is alkermes, is recorded by the OED from as early as 1610, beating out the unnamed Franciscan by a goodly amount. We get the present word from the Latin carminus, which was unrelated to carmen, a song (as in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana) but along the way, the colour gave rise to quite a bit of martial music, after it was used to colour the British army's uniforms.

Cochineal, depending on its treatment, can yield anything from scarlet to crimson to orange. This dye comes from the Mexican "cochineal beetle", Coccus cacti, which lives on a cactus, one of the prickly pears, which raises an interesting Australian angle: when prickly pear was introduced into Australia, legend has it that it was brought in so people could make jam, or so they could make hedges from the plant.
When you look at the discussions of the Sydney Acclimatization Society in the 1860s, it is clear that cochineal production was considered a good idea and a desirable aim.

In fact, the beetle is no coleopteran at all, but a hemipteran, part of an order that includes cicadas, leafhoppers and aphids, now called Dactylopius coccus. Another species of Dactylopius, along with its cactus host, were brought to Australia in the first English fleet, but both the cactus and the insects died.

The plan for an Australian cochineal industry was inspired by the knowledge that, in the late 1600s, a sometime pirate and explorer, William Dampier, captured some cochineal on a Spanish ship with great glee, knowing that it was worth its weight in gold. The find would have been of little value, though, if a Dutch scientist in London in the early 1600s had not accidentally (they say) dropped some solution of pewter into a preparation of cochineal.
Drebbel's submarine, Wikimedia

This led the scientist, Cornelis Drebbel, better known for his invention of a human-powered submarine, to discover the way of mordanting cochineal with tin salts — pewter, after all, is mostly tin. In mordanting, the dye is made to "bite in" to the yarn, so that it is not easily dislodged in later washing, not like the indigo that dyes your denim jeans, which is preferred over newer, 'faster' dyes, because it fades. Once Drebbel found his process, the cochineal dye clung fast to the cloth, and the new red was a bright and distinctive colour.

Cromwell's death mask, Wikimedia
That brightness was a key issue in 1645, when Oliver Cromwell founded his New Model Army, the first national military force commanded by professional officers. Cromwell wanted to give his soldiers a sense of identity, and dressed them in red coats dyed with Drebbel's new cochineal dyeing process. And that was how Britain got the troops, still known best to Americans as "the redcoats".

Now here we can see why Australians in the 1860s might have thought it a good idea to grow prickly pear for cochineal beetles. They were, after all, part of the British Empire, on which the sun never set.

Just as 'carmine' comes from the middle east, so does our word 'scarlet'. It is an aphetic or shortened form of the Old French escarlate, supposedly from the Persian saqalat, a kind of rich cloth.

There is also a fish called a char, which is usually red, but this has less to do with glowing coals, and more to do with the Gaelic ceara, red, or cear, blood. A char is also a cart or wagon, a relative of the chariot, which becomes, when fitted with seats that face forward, a char-à-banc or charabanc, but these seem to have nothing to do with charcoal, either.

For some reasons, the worst sins were scarlet, and Judas Iscariot is often portrayed as a redhead, yet cardinals wear hats of a colour called cardinal red. And then there was Hilaire Belloc, who hoped his epitaph would read "his sins were scarlet, but his books were read".

General note that I am adding to some of my blog entries: I have lots of different interests. If some area interests you, look at the very end and you will see a set of tags called labels. These are hot links that will give you a list of other articles with the same tag/label.

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