Who was Anbar
According to Baby Name Wizard’s NameVoyager, the name Amber peaked as a baby girl’s name some time back in the early 1980’s and has been in steep decline ever since.
One theory has it that, as with many other names that became popular after 1970, the rate of new name invention has simply outstripped demand and the name Amber, after receiving its requisite 15 minutes of fame in the top 10, has since been shoved out of the way to make room for newer and brasher upstarts, über-brattish names such as Tayla, Kayla, Brianna or Madison. Poor old Amber, meanwhile, has had to be content with ranking below 80 on the various baby name Top 100 charts out there.
Of course the other reason might be that enough people started to realise that the etymology of the word is Amber is in fact “the vomit of a sperm whale”. Not quite the sort of thing parents usually like to think about when naming their daughters…
OK I suppose I should “unpack” that statement just a little bit.
When people think of amber they normally think of that yellow fossilized resin stuff, that sometimes encases ancient little insects and can be fashioned into all kinds of pretty things like jewellery and ornaments. The word comes from the Arabic word ‘anbar however this is really a mistranslation or misappropriation of the word. Whereas the Europeans meant to refer to a substance that the Romans knew variously as succinum, glaesum or glesum and the Greeks knew as elektron, the Arabs were actually referring to an entirely different substance which is today rendered into English as ambergris or “grey amber”.
Why devil’s music do not please?
What sort of thing is Ambergrease?
— Samuel Colvil Whiggs supplication: A mock poem in two parts. 1687
What’s not to like about ambergris? It is an extremely rare aromatic substance which is:
…soft, waxy, and so highly fragrant and spicy, that it is largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders, and pomatum. The Turks use it in cooking, and also carry it to Mecca, for the same purpose that frankincense is carried to St. Peter’s in Rome. Some wine merchants drop a few grains into claret, to flavor it.
— Herman Melville Moby-Dick, or, the whale. 1851.
Ambergris has been highly prized since ancient times as an ingredient for making perfumes. Its scent is often described as both sweet and earthy and it also has the property of slowing evaporation and making other fragrances last much longer. A single drop of it is said to be able to keep its scent for decades and a single lump could supply the needs of perfume manufacturer for several years.
Ambergris is expensive due to its extreme rarity and for a long time the source of this wondrous substance remained a mystery. It was only ever found washed up on beaches. The locals would collect it and bring it to market.
The pieces that are found on the coasts of this sea (of India) are thrown there by the waves. One finds the amber in the sea of India, but no one knows where it comes from.
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One only knows that the best Amber is the one found at Berbera and up to the ends of the land of the Zang (the East Coast of Africa), and also at Sihr and its surroundings. That amber has the shape of an egg and is gray. The people of that region go to find it, riding on camels during the moon-lit nights; they follow the coasts. They ride camels who are trained for that and who know how to look for amber on the coast. When the camel finds a piece of amber, it kneels down and its owner goes to collect it. One also finds pieces of amber floating on the water of a considerable weight. Sometimes those pieces are really big.
The Arabs believed that it bubbled up from subterranean vents:
And there also is a spring of crude ambergris, which flowed like wax or gum over the stream banks, for the great heat of the sun, and ran down to the seashore, where the monsters of the deep come up and, swallowing it, return into the sea. But it burneth in their bellies, so they cast it up again and it congealeth on the surface of the water, whereby its colour and quantities are changed, and at last the waves cast it ashore, and the travellers and merchants who know it collect it and sell it. But as to the raw ambergris which is not swallowed, it floweth over the channel and congealeth on the banks, and when the sun shines on it, it melteth and scenteth the whole valley with a musk-like fragrance. Then when the sun ceaseth from it, it congealed again. But none can get to this place where is the crude ambergris, because of the mountains which enclose the island on all sides and which foot of man cannot ascend.
— The Sixth Voyage of Sinbad the Seaman
The Chinese on the other hand referred to it as “Dragon’s Spittle” because they believed that it was made from the congealed saliva that drooled from the mouths of dragons that slept on the sea floor.
As it turns out the Chinese were somewhat closer to the truth:
Ambergris is, in basic terms, what the sperm whale can’t digest.
It’s a combination of things like squid beaks and juice found inside sperm whales, but Mr Jury says that it is the quirky way the ambergris is released from the whale that really makes it off.
“They actually belch it out, and apparently those rare souls across the world who have actually heard this happen, say you can hear it for miles.”
Once the whale has belched up the ambergris it stays in the ocean for around a decade.
“If you were to take it… immediately after the whale has expelled it, then you would put it back in the water, because apparently the smell is horrific. But importantly it has to float around the oceans of the world for ten years… so that the sun and the water of the oceans can wash it, until all the nasties have gone and it assumes that sweetness that we’re witnessing now.”
Mr Jury says scientists believe only about one per cent of sperm whales release ambergris.
The above quote comes from this article about a 15 kilogram lump of ambergris that was recently found washed up on a beach in South Australia.
The lump is currently being valued around US$300,000…
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