Cyprine, five postcards on a word – Eley Williams


This postcard was tucked in an English translation of Lesbian peoples: material for a dictionary (1979) by Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig. You may have heard of Wittig. Zeig was Wittig’s partner and formerly – and, I hope, both throughout and latterly – her martial arts instructor. The book is a playful, speculative, excoriative almanac for a fabled island populated by lesbians. It’s a send-up, a mock-up, a manifesto and a flipglib thumb to the nose.

Nose-deep in its pages, you might find that the book features the neologism cyprine. What does it mean? A translator of the book rather tentatively explained the word as ‘the juice.’ In the French cyprine is defined as ‘le liquide sécrété à l’entrée du vagin de la femme lorsqu’elle est en état d’excitation sexuelle.’

It feels nice to have a word for that. It feels immediately sad that all the words I have for that are either associated more with men or with stuff coming out of my nose. Cyprine here, in the dictionary of Wittig and Zeig, is intended to have linguistic connotations with the island Cyprus, Aphrodite’s home. It’s a spry and glistening kind of word. And you know the gays love an island – cf. Lesbos, cruising etc.

            Wittig and Zeig’s book is brimming. We can talk about brims between ourselves, you and I.



Wish you were here. Beyond Wittig and Zeig’s dictionary, cyprine also describes a variety of vesuvianite. This is a mineral that was first discovered adjacent to lavas on Mount Vesuvius. Boom clouds and bodies transfixed: yes, that Vesuvius.

I will never guess the correct plural of lava right first time. It does not come easily. What does? Sensu stricto, the breeze might call through the curtains, so I’ll follow its scent and read, yes, multiple laval shifts surge hot and impossible like hands against and reaching out from rock.

The mineral cyprine is also known as idocrase. I do craze sometimes when the fan is merely stirring the air into something silicate and nacreous, stars or suns peacock-bright outside. I read that ‘Vesuvianite occurs as crystals in skarn deposits.’ Skarn refers to chemical alteration of a rock via hydrothermal means. The notion here is of hot fluids that have been subjected to contact metamorphism. Hot stuff, and changing out of what hardnesses and feet-on-the-groundnesses.

This postcard was meant to read: ‘come by sometime’, under pressure.

Cyprine’s crystals can be cut as gemstones. ‘Cut your teeth on this’ always sounded to me like the most violent-hot turn of phrase.

Do you know how many serious books and websites I consulted before I went to serious bed with a serious woman? There were diagrams there too, as there might be for DIY furniture construction or jewellery repair. All the books were paid-for and not from the library. This was undertaken and taken under with an earnest and terrified sense of revision. I never once thought of a hinged mirror that might fit in my palm of my hand. I certainly did not have the word cyprine to hand.

There’s a pun here but I’m not sure I can make it indelicate-delicate: This article about a specific silicate mineral is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.


There is a mollusc called the Icelandic cyprine (Arctica islandica). It is also known as an ocean quahog. I thought Herman Melville came up with the name Quahog. I get it now. It is a bubble of a word, snug and ugly and great. Quahog is a word for saying underwater or with a mouthful. Some words are made for speculative onomatopia. Did I spell onomatopoeia correctly first time of typing? Did I fuck.

Of course the Icelandic cyprine is a species of edible clam. Excellent, you can right or wrong the punchlines as you like. An individual specimen of Icelandic cyprine was recorded as for living 507 years, which makes it ‘the longest-lived non-colonial metazoan whose age was accurately known’. Cyprine and accuracy, mud in your eye. 507 years ago Thomas Wolsey was drawing-up plans for a forthcoming invasion of France. That same article about ancient edible clams specifies that ‘it is unknown how long [the specimen] could have lived had it not been collected alive by an expedition in 2006.’ I imagine a dredging naval vessel, its bad radio full of that year’s worst hits as they dug up that noble clam: Fergie’s ‘London Bridge’, JT’s ‘SexyBack’, P!ink’s ‘U + Ur Hand’. You should not rake for these things, I think.

I wonder how you date an edible clam, and other sentences.


There are certain words have such a pleasing consistency, texture, taste, colour, odour, network, milieu, stance, poise, arch, crane, comfort, peak, trough; limpid, tepid, torpid, torqued, liquid, lacquered, honeyed, latched, thatched, throstle-songled, spangled words. The normal pH of these words is between 3.8 and 4.5, so there is some bite to them.

I am supposing there is a man with the surname ‘Skene’. I am supposing there is a man called ‘Bartholin’. Glands and ducts named after them, in the same way men name mountains and creatures after themselves. I hope they were kind.

I prefer secrete as a hiding verb rather than anything concerned with outwardliness. It is secreted about my person.

Have you ever heard the word Spinnbarkeit? I haven’t. Why don’t we all have these words at the tips of our fingers? Who has been stockpiling them?


 Let’s give the articles a rest and look in another dictionary.

  • cyprine,adj. (Ichthyology) Belonging to the carp genus Cyprīnus, or the carp family, Cyprinidæ.

Try saying Ichthyology when you next lock eyes with someone, or with a mouth full of morning.

  • cyprine, adj. (Obsolete) Of or belonging to the coniferous cypress tree.
    • Examples of use:

1474    J. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 592 — ‘My wryghtyng box of sypresse.’

1504   in S. Tymms’ Wills & Inventories Bury St. Edmunds (1850) 98  — ‘My coffyr of syprys.’

1673    Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 8 6015  — ‘Another sort of wood, called Cypress..better than any Pine for Masts.’

‘Extensively cultivated,’ it says here. ‘With hard durable wood and dense dark foliage; often regarded as symbolic of mourning’.

Things come and then leave or pertain to going. Every 21 days I dream of a cypress tree with its leaves spread against the moonlight.

I do not wish you obsolescence. Cunt as playful, speculative, excoriative almanac, or ichthyology. Obsolescence itself is just another beautiful word for a nothinging. Secrete it about your person, and pearlgrit your teeth with a new vocabulary.

By Eley williams

Main photo: Chris Boland



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