Friday, November 18, 2011

Word of the Week: Vair

Vair is a little-used word that will give squirrels nightmares. It means squirrel fur, specifically the white and bluish-gray fur of the Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). In Northern and Central Europe, the Eurasian Red Squirrel's winter coat is blueish-gray on the back and white on the belly. In medieval times, this fur was used as a lining for expensive cloaks in which alternating pieces of blue and white fur were sewn together to create a variegated pattern. The word entered Middle English circa 1300 from the Old French vair, an adjective for mottled or variegated, which derived from the Latin varius meaning variegated or various. Obviously the word is more associated with the pattern created from the fur than any properties of the fur itself. Vair also signifies an alternating pattern of blue and white used in heraldry.

Vair-lined mantle
depicted on the tomb of
Geoffrey V of Anjou.
Once upon a time vair played a role in a controversy regarding the source of Cinderella's glass slippers as described in Charles Perrault's version. There are well over a hundred versions of the Cinderella tale from various cultures. Only a few versions mention glass slippers. In the majority of cases, the shoes are made of gold or not described. In the Grimm's version, for example, Cinderella goes to a ball on three different nights. On the first night, her shoes are "silk slippers embroidered with silver", undescribed on the second night, and "pure gold" slippers on the third night (The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes, pp. 81-2). Some scholars proposed that Perrault had meant "une paire de pantoufles de vair" which through printing and translation errors became verre, the French word for glass. The problem with this theory is that Perrault's original text contains pantoufles de verre. It appears that the glass slippers were Perrault's or a French contribution to the Cinderella story, perhaps to highlight their magical quality.  

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