Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read previous columns here.
In the opening scenes of “Dune,” the science-fiction epic that premieres this weekend in American theaters and on HBO Max, the character Chani, played by Zendaya, introduces viewers to her native planet. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani intones in a voice-over. “Rolling over the sands, you can see spice in the air.”
That “spice,” we learn, is the most valuable commodity in the universe created by Frank Herbert in his series of “Dune” novels. Produced only on Arrakis, it is a sacred hallucinogen with wondrous properties, extending the user’s lifespan and also providing a kind of heightened awareness that makes interstellar navigation possible.
Serious “Dune” fans know that the spice is dubbed “melange” in Herbert’s works, as well as in an earlier film adaptation written and directed by David Lynch in 1984. The latest version from director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t mention “melange” by name (at least not in this first of two planned cinematic installments), but it remains a key term in Herbert’s “Dune”-iverse. “Children of Dune,” published in 1976, opens a chapter with an imagined dictionary entry. The first definition given for “mélange” is “mixture of spices,” while the second is the “spice of Arrakis (Dune)” with its special properties. The entry even includes an etymological note: “origin uncertain (thought to derive from ancient Terran Franzh).”
“Franzh” is doubtless the language that we Terrans know as French, which is indeed the source of the word “melange”—or “mélange” when accented in the French style. “Mélange” is derived from the Old French verb “mesler,” meaning “to mix or mingle,” which also gave rise to “meddle,” “medley” and “melee” in English. Ultimately, it goes back to the Latin verb “miscere,” the shared root for such words as “mix,” “miscellaneous” and “promiscuous.”
“In the cafes of Vienna in the 1830s, the word was borrowed for a mix of steamed coffee and frothed milk.”
When “melange” entered English in the 17th century, it served as a fancy term for what might otherwise be called a hodgepodge or mishmash, a blending of incongruous elements. (Along with “melange” and “medley,” French has supplied other terms for such mixtures, including “pastiche” and “potpourri.”)
In his 1653 work “Paradoxes,” the English poet John Hall, writing under the pen name J. de la Salle, rhapsodizes about women: “The sweetnesses and killing languors of their eyes, the meslange and harmony of their colours.” And in “Numismata,” a 1697 treatise on ancient coins, John Evelyn describes a metal alloy known in antiquity as Corinthian brass, which was thought to fuse copper with gold and silver: “There were indeed many exquisitely wrought Vessels said to be of that precious Melange.”
Over time, “melange” developed a number of more specific meanings for particular mixtures. In the cafes of Vienna in the 1830s, the word was borrowed for a mix of steamed coffee and frothed milk. Later in the 19th century, “melange” could refer to certain textiles, such as a fabric woven from cotton and wool, or yarn spun from fibers of different colors. In geology, a “melange” is a sedimentary rock composed of a jumble of disparate material.
When Frank Herbert commandeered “melange” to name the all-powerful spice of “Dune,” he may have been inspired by culinary uses of the term. A roundup of New Orleans cuisine syndicated in newspapers in 1964, for instance, describes “tea that’s treated to a melange of spices.”
Or perhaps, as
user HikerYote surmised in a widely circulated 2018 tweet, Herbert based the entire “Dune” cycle on “a terrible pun”: “1. The spice is called melange. 2. The spice confers power and longevity. 3. Melange is a French word for variety.” The punchline: “In other words, variety is the spice of life.”
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