Reading · Trivia · Word of the week

Word of the week: antimacassar

Early in 2016, I wrote this piece about words and phrases that seem to crop up regularly in prize-winning fiction. One of them was antimacassar, “a piece of cloth put over the back of a chair to protect it from grease or hair-oil – macassar was used as a hair oil in Victorian and Edwardian times, and most of these books are set at least partly in those eras”.

The word features in Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Booker Prize winner “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” three times, in “Ulysses” by James Joyce and “The Card” by Arnold Bennett. I came across it last week in Margaret Drabble’s “The Ice Age”, a book set mostly in the 1970s and which I had bought back in 1983. I had started it at least three times in the last 36 years, and finally finished it at the weekend. My motivation for reading it, finally, was recalling that Douglas Coupland had cited it as his favourite novel. The following sentence appears on page 153 of my Penguin edition:

“The plane was comfortable, old fashioned, she lay back with her head on the white antimacassar, quaintly embroidered: a first-class ticket that nice man Clyde Barstow had given her, with deprecating mumbles about it being a personal gift.”

Back in August the word also featured in a question on the Channel 4 quiz show “The 100k Drop”, namely:

“In which of these places is an antimacassar most likely to be located?”

The options were: On an aircraft wing / In an insect repellent / On a chair / Inside a black hole

The answer, as you know, is “On a chair”. The two contestants, from Manchester, split their money on “insect repellent” (75k) and “aircraft wing” (25k), so they left the show at that point. One of them looked especially gutted to be leaving so early. When Davina McCall read out the question it was the first time I had ever heard “antimacassar” outside the context of a book. Like the other words that featured in my piece in 2016 (“filigree”, “lapis lazuli” and “daguerreotype”) I have yet to hear “antimacassar” in day-to-day conversation. For the record, “daguerreotype” also appears in another book that I have read in recent weeks, the 2017 Booker Prize winner “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders, but I have yet to encounter it in a quiz show.




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