How do you get someone to fall in love with you? In this week’s Weird Words writing prompt, we’ll whip up the perfect love potion!
Oberon: “Maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”
In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon concocts a plan to play a dirty trick on his wife, Titania, by charming her into falling in love with a forest animal. He sends the notoriously mischievous Puck to gather up a flower which he plans to use as a philter. So what is a philter and how could it possibly help Oberon on his mission? Excellent questions!
This week, we will answer them both, but first…
Use, portray, describe, or otherwise demonstrate the proper use of the word “philter.” As with our other Weird Word prompts, this one is very open-ended. Any medium or style is welcome!
Funk & Wagnalls’ New Comprehensive International Dictionary of the English Language defines a philter as a charm or potion which has “the power to excite sexual love.” Philters of various kinds have appeared throughout world literature for hundreds of years. In Western culture, these tricky aphrodisiacs enjoyed special popularity during the Middle Ages. In some versions of the tales of King Arthur, for example, a philter is responsible for kindling a love affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, one of her husband’s knights.
Philters often come with a high price and few guarantees. It’s not as simple as charming the object of your desire and living happily ever after. In fact, many of the stories which feature philters are about the unexpected consequences of attempting to play Cupid using magical means. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, Puck goes a little overboard with Oberon’s philter. Just about everyone in the play winds up in love with someone or another, and not the people they are supposed to be in love with.
A close cousin of philter is the word “philtrum.” According to Simon Hertnon, author of Endangered Words, the philtrum is the the little groove which runs from just above the upper lip to just below the nose. “The philtrum, is just a residual reminder of your time in the womb,” Maggie Ryan Sandford from Mental Floss tells us, “In utero, the two sides of your face develop independent of one another, then join at the middle.” Despite its humble origins, however, the range of motion enjoyed by the human lip is believed to be greatly increased by this little facial feature, and it hasn’t gone unappreciated. “Ancient Romans,” says Sandford, “found the philtrum erotic and named that lipstick-thwarting dip in the upper lip ‘Cupid’s Bow.’” It’s part of what makes the human mouth so damn kissable!
Philter and philtrum are in the same family of words as “philosophy” and “bibliophile,” which are derived from the Greek root word phil, meaning “to love.” Philter comes from the combination of phil and the Latin suffix tron, which indicates that something is a tool or instrument, so a philter is literally a love tool. Take that as you will….
“a charmed draft supposed to have power to excite sexual love;
a love potion; hence, any magic potion”
(Credit: Funk & Wagnalls)
If you need a little creative inspiration for this prompt, try checking out some music from the artist Philter! The philtrum in the featured image for this prompt is from the cover art of their album “The Blossom Chronicles.”
Philter is pronounced exactly like the word filter, which is a device used to strain or sort things. For instance, a filter could be used to separate the emails your parents sent you from the emails sent by your significant other. Using such a filter might be wise so that you don’t accidentally send your mother the philter you intended for your lover. Things might get a little crazy, and not good crazy. Be wary that you don’t mix up your philters and your filters!
(Roggen Wulf, 2014)