origin of ‘philtrum’ (the indentation above the upper lip)


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The noun philtrum denotes the vertical groove between the base of the nose and the border of the upper lip.

The literal and obsolete signification of this word, which appeared in the early 17th century, is love potion, from classical Latin philtrum, of same meaning. In post-classical Latin, philtrum came to also denote the dimple in the upper lip.

It is from ancient Greek ϕίλτρον (= philtron), meaning love charm, whether a potion or any other means, and more generally charmspell, and in Hellenistic Greek also the groove in the upper lip.

This Greek word is composed of ϕιλ- (= phil-), stem of ϕιλεῖν (= philein), to love, and the suffix -τρον (= -tron).

Erotic connotations relating to the mouth and the lips* explain why the name philtrum has been applied to the dimple in the upper lip. This is also why Cupid’s bow denotes the shape of the top edge of a person’s upper lip. (Cupid, the Roman god of love, is represented as a naked winged boy with a double-curved bow and arrows, with which he wounds his victims.)

However, in its earliest attestation in English, philtrum as a term of anatomy is far from being associated with love; in Physiognomie, and Chiromancie, Metoposcopie, The Symmetrical Proportions and Signal Moles of the Body, Fully and accurately handled; with their Natural-Predictive Significations (1653), Richard Saunders (1613-75), medical practitioner and astrologer, wrote:

Considering the cheeks and the chin, whether can these be referred but to the belly and groin? With admiration I speak it; milk is not more like to milk, nor an egg beareth not a greater similitude to an egg, then [= than] these each to other; if with more curiositie we compare these, their similitude will be the more conspicuous; the cheek is fleshy, such is the belly and buttocks; and as the chin is in situation, so are the secrets; and as the chin terminates and bounds the face, so doth the groin, the belly and buttocks: from hence it follows that a mole constituted one [= on] the cheek, reveals another on the belly or part thereunto answering, according to the position of right or left; if also in the hollow of the nether lip, another betwixt the secrets and the navil; if one be upon the extremity of the chin, another is located in the extremity of the belly: A mole likewise on the philtrum or hollow of the upper lip, under the nostrils, will most aptly express another on the pericæum between the scrotum and the seat: and thus concerning moles in all parts, by analogie and similitude, may most easily be gathered.

But the philtrum has sensual connotations in the following passage from Giovanni’s Gift (1997), by the American author Bradford Morrow (born 1951):

Helen didn’t answer, sat instead with knees up and head leaning back against the iron crosspost, staring at the clouds, and didn’t seem to mind that I now studied her in the feverish light. Rather, she appeared to have withdrawn so far into herself that I doubted she had even heard my last question (how I hoped she hadn’t), and so I didn’t say anything more but took advantage of this withdrawal, or whatever it was, to run my eye down the gentle curve of her profiled forehead to the delicate dark brow and then to follow the straight projection of her nose. It was more sensual, in its way, how I felt looking with total absence of inhibition, than if I were touching the profile my eye traced. Her philtrum was pronounced, where the angel touched her just above the lips, as the fable has it. And her lips themselves were somber, the lower lip very full, and the chin was modest but strong, with the slightest hint of a cleft.

Bradford Morrow refers to Lailah, the angel of conception; in Gabriel’s Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales (1993), Howard Schwartz wrote:

While the infant grows in the womb, Lailah watches over it, reading the unborn child the history of its soul. All the while a light shines upon the head of the child, by which it sees from one end of the world to the other. And Lailah shows the child the rewards of the Garden of Eden, as well as the punishments of Gehenna. But when the time has come to be born, the angel extinguishes the light and brings forth the child into the world, and as it is brought forth, it cries. Then Lailah lightly strikes the newborn above the lip, causing it to forget all it has learned. And that is the origin of this mark, which everyone bears.

The form philtre has also, but rarely, been used. In Glossographia: or A Dictionary, Interpreting all such Hard Words, Whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Teutonick, Belgick or Saxon, as are now used in our refined English Tongue (1656), the English antiquary and lexicographer Thomas Blount (1618-79) wrote:

Philtre ([from Latin] philtrum) an amorous potion; a love-procuring drink or medicine; also the hollowness or gutter in the upper lip under the nostrils.

The French word for the groove in the upper lip is philtre; it also means love potion. In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave thus defined this French noun:

An amorous potion, or loue-procuring medicine; also, the hollow, or gutter of the vpper lip.

The French surgeon Jean-François Lavoisien gave a similar definition in Dictionnaire portatif de Médecine, d’Anatomie, de Chirurgie, de Pharmacie, de Chymie, d’Histoire Naturelle, de Botanique et de Physique (1771):

Breuvage, ou remede propre pour inspirer l’amour. On donne encore ce nom à la cavité ou enfoncement de la levre supérieure, qui est située immédiatement sous la cloison du nez.



* These erotic associations appear for example in The Song of Solomon:

     (King James Version – 1611)
4:10 How faire is thy loue, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy loue then wine! and the smell of thine oyntments then all spices!
4:11 Thy lips, O my spouse! drop as the hony combe: hony and milke are vnder thy tongue, and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.

In an echo of the Bible, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) established a metaphoric connection between philtre (i.e. love potion) and kisses in Hymne à la beauté (Hymn to Beauty):

     first two stanzas:
Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme,
Ô Beauté ? ton regard, infernal et divin,
Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime,
Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.

Tu contiens dans ton œil le couchant et l’aurore ;
Tu répands des parfums comme un soir orageux ;
Tes baisers sont un philtre et ta bouche une amphore
Qui font le héros lâche et l’enfant courageux.

Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss,
Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal,
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime,
And one may for that, compare you to wine.

You contain in your eyes the sunset and the dawn;
You scatter perfumes like a stormy night;
Your kisses are a philtre, your mouth an amphora
Which make the hero weak and the child courageous.

from Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil – second edition, 1861)
translation: William Aggeler, 1954

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