What’s an ‘attar’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: attar…

I had long associated the word attar with scent, but I didn’t know its meaning any further than that and would have been reluctant to use it in a sentence. Thus, when I stumbled across it in the marvellous novel, The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue, I decided to investigate further.

First, however, here is how Donoghue used it:

But the girl showed a relish for everything. Snuffed at the air as if it were attar of roses instead of cows and chickens.

It turns out that an attar is more than just a scent. It’s specifically a fragrant essential oil and the fragrance typically relates to roses. The etymology of the word dates back to 1798 and it’s Persian, from atar-gul meaning “essence of roses.” The root, atar means “fragrance,” and it comes from the Arabic itr, which means “perfumes, aromas.”

Attars have been famous in the Middle East, Persia and India for a thousand years, but have been generally unavailable in the West, until relatively recently.

There is also a Persian poet and mystic known as Attar (full name: Farid ad-Din Attar) who lived from c. 1145 – c. 1221. 

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