orientalist word of the day: seraglio

January 2, 2007

Today’s word is from Theodore Herzl’s novel Altneuland. not the best novel, but it has its moments. the first 2 chapters are quite good at describing the plight of the nineteenth century Gernan-jewish professional class, although Herzl’s embrace of anti-semitic stereotypes are troubling. and it’s hard not to like a novel whose whole plot hinges on a newspaper add posted by a Mr. N. O. Body (Herzl thankfully explains).

anyway, today’s word belongs in any good orientalist’s vocabulary. The word comes to us from Italian via Latin, yet bears the influence of Turkish. The OED has an interesting note: “the applications of the word which have been adopted in Eng. all relate to Turkey and the East,” yet some words show the etymological connection to Italian/Latin (confinement/enclosure) and others use the Turkish sense, palace.

The main definition of a seraglio is, “The part of a Muslim dwelling-house (esp. of the palace of a sovereign or great noble) in which the women are secluded; the apartments reserved for wives and concubines; a harem.”

the next definition is more figurative, being the inmates of the harem. harem also has this synecdocical meaning: we usually say harem to refer to the women, not the place where the women are kept.

the other definitions for seraglio are all conflations with the turkish serai. A serai is a type of palace. however, the 3rd definition of serai is “misuse of seraglio,” meaning harem. the first quote for this definition is from Byron, “Not thus was Hassan wont to fly When Leila dwelt in his Serai.” the conflation seems to have occurred because english accepted both the Italian seraglio and french serail, which is simply a synonym for the former. serail and serai look like they probably share the same meaning, whereas, in reality, they have different linguistic roots.

the most interesting definition is the second. how often do words accept the synecdocical form as part of their definition?

can homes in america have seraglios, or is the definition still limited to turkey? is it still limited to mohammedans, or can dibs and cody build a seraglio on their loggia (if not them, i’m sure joe will)? would doing so constitute a post-colonial act?

tomorrow i’ll get back to wordblogging poop.

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