Monday, September 5, 2016


Probably the most famous reference to the nose is the phrase “Cleopatra’s nose,”  derived from Pascal’s celebrated pensee, “If the nose of Cleopatra had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed,” which cunningly incorporates Cleopatra’s face in that of the earth. “The Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” explicates this as alluding to the beauty and charm of Cleopatra, and her conquest of, first Julius Caesar, then Mark Anthony.

This is especially interesting because of its implication, which can be variously interpreted as short being better than long or vice versa. It always reminded me, appropriately or not, of one of my youthful idols, the charming French actress in both Paris and Hollywood, my namesake Simone Simon, whose nose was perfectly snub. As the film scholar David Thomson puts it, “It was a small, pretty face, a little pinched around the nose and slanted in the eyes.” Pinched around the nose, strikes me as nonsense; it was the small, upturned nose itself that could perhaps be called pinched, but what it would have done to Caesar and Anthony remains unclear.

Anthony reminds me of Anthony Weiner, who has a long, thin, downward-pointing, really scimitar-shaped nose.  It may have been part of what appealed to Huma Amedin, his wife. If I may be allowed “a technical term no longer in use” (as my dictionary tells me), there is such a thing as the Hamitic or (still in use) Semitic nose, which latter caused both Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow to be nicknamed The Nose.

No less characteristic is its opposite, the Roman nose, the kind that is straight, with an outline that continues without indentation the downward thrust of the brow. Though reputedly Roman, it’s a shape I have not encountered on any Roman bust I have seen in museums. Could it be that the sculptors eschewed and, as they thought, improved on it?

The second-most mythical one is the Pope’s nose, which, according to Brewer, is also called the Parson’s nose, and refers to “the rump of a fowl . . . said to have originated during the years following James II’s reign (1685-1688), when anti-Catholic feeling was high.”

The third-most famous, or notorious, nose is that of Cyrano de Bergerac, in Edmond Rostand popular play about him. The protagonist has an immense nose, about which he is very sensitive, and has him woo his beloved Roxane not for himself, but for his friend, the handsome but ineloquent Christian. With tragic irony, years later, the widowed Roxane lets him know that she could have loved him anyway--rather too late, what with her now a nun, and him dying.

The nose is both famous and infamous as asserted in phrases and references. In my personal experience, the actress Patti LuPone stated that she did not know that her nose was big until she read it in a review by me, this intended by her not as a compliment, I being neither Caesar nor Mark Anthony.

Which brings me to what may be the fourth-most famous nose, that of the great Roman poet Ovid, more fully Publius Ovidius Naso, suggested by his cognomen
Naso, most likely incorrectly, as large. The Naso probably came from his family name, and not from his “nasus” or its declension as “naso.”

Among the lesser writings of this famed love poet—trice married, the third time happily—is a poem in elegiacs, of which only the tiniest fragment has survived. It was called “Medicamina faciei femineae,” and was, according to “The Oxford Classical Dictionary,” a “handbook of cosmetics for the female toilet.” I would like to think that it contained something about women’s noses.

Latin poetry had much to do with noses, as in the term “nasutus,” which meant large-nosed in Horace, but acute or satirical and even sagacious in Martial. The word for nose itself has echoes in sundry languages, thus “nez” in French, “Nase” in German, “nos” in Serbian, “naso” in Italian, and so on. Spanish even has “narizon” for large-nosed (forgive my keyboard’s lack of accents) and “narizota” for a large, ugly schnoz, the latter Yiddish. It must all derive, I imagine, from Indo-European roots.

For the basic meanings of nose, my Heritage Dictionary has several, including the sense of smell in a dog with a good nose, also the ability to detect things as if by smell, the characteristic smell of a wine, a symbol for prying as also in the adjective nosy or nosey, and for a very short distance by which a horse often wins a race.

Oddly enough, it took Cicero to state the obvious but relevant. He wrote, and I translate, of the nose as “so located as to be viewed as a wall interposed between the eyes.” It would clearly not do to fail to keep the eyes apart. And what Cicero does not, indeed cannot, mention, the nose is what helps keep your spectacles on your face.

Let us now examine some of the chief phrases as yet unmentioned in which the nose figures. They are: on the nose (of a bull’s eye), led by the nose, to bite someone’s nose off, to count noses , to cut off your nose to spite your face, to follow one’s nose, to pay through the nose, to keep one’s nose to the grindstone, to look down one’s nose, to poke one’s nose in, to put one’s nose out of joint, to turn up your nose, under one’s very nose.

And then there are the figures in history known as nosy, not for their curiosity but for their large noses. Thus Wellington was nicknamed Nosy by his troops, with the same moniker bestowed also on Oliver Cromwell. But where does the expression for an inquisitive type, Nosy Parker, come from? Who was this Parker? A pen?

Lastly, if there is a lastly, the words that merely sound as if they had to do with noses, such as “nosology,” which is the classification of diseases, but which I always wanted to mean the science and study of noses.
                                                                                                                                                                    My not quite last edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” lists 22 items under “nose,” of which I’ll adduce two. One is from a poem by Thomas Ravenscroft (17th Century), entitled “Deuteromelia,” and runs: “Nose, nose, nose, nose!/ And who gave thee this jolly red nose?/ Nutmeg and ginger, cinnamon and cloves,/ And they gave me this jolly red nose.”

The other is a line from “Cyrano de Bergerac” in the Brian Hooker translation: “A great nose indicates a great man,” When I was in the army, I heard it differently: “Great nose, great cock.” This, I suspect, would not stand up under investigation, but it made some of the shorter soldiers with large noses feel bigger and better.

As for me, a beautiful girlfriend from the distant past, looking at me in the nude, remarked, “It’s just the right size for me.” Was it really? And what is the right size anyway? Who knows?