Category Archives: words the French gave us

Denouement – a knotty literary device

Hello,

This week’s word is denouement, with thanks to “The Penultimate Peril” by Lemony Snicket, the second last book in the Series of Unfortunate Events adventure books (for age 9-12) which I enjoyed earlier this year.

Some colourful knots

As you might guess this is a word the French gave us, although the French version is spelled slightly differently – dénouement. The denouement in a story takes place after the climax. It resolves all the loose ends of plots and any remaining secrets are revealed. Generally in a tragedy the characters end up worse off than they started and in a comedy the characters end up happier.

An example from history, rather than fiction, would be in World War II. The climax is the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan whereas the denouement is Japan’s official surrender. In “Romeo & Juliet” the climax would be their mutual deaths, whereas the prince’s speech afterwards, resolving the story, is the denouement.

Denouement transferred from French to English around the mid 1700s and despite its association with drawing together loose ends and tying up the various plot lines, it’s actually closer to untying something, at least linguistically speaking. Dénouement in French came from dénouer (to untie) and from desnouer in Old French. Desnouer was compounded from des (un-) and nouer (to knot or tie) which ultimately comes from the Latin word nodus, for knot. Nodus also give us the idea of a node in a network, such as neural networks.

So, denouement comes from the idea of untying knots although writers often think of it more as a place where various stands of plot are tied together in a neat bow to complete a narrative.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Note: this post contains an affiliate link to help defray the costs of the blog

Persiflage & 2018 Word Quiz

Hello,

The Wordfoolery Blog is ten years old this year so I decided to treat it to a new theme and banner, I hope you like it. Our weekly dose of word history won’t change though, never fear. This week there’s also a fun word quiz for you to try based on the unusual words explored here during 2018. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to share it – it’s free to try, short, and doesn’t save any personal details.

This week’s word is persiflage (pronunciation here). Perhaps you’re familiar with it, but I happened upon it last year and it sent me to the dictionary to discover it’s a noun for

“light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter” (OED)

Considering how much I enjoy a touch of persiflage, I’m stunned I never stumbled on this one before.

Persiflage entered English in the late 1700s as a direct acquisition from French where the verb persifler means “to banter”. It had formed in French by compounding the Latin word per (through) and the French word siffler (to whistle or hiss) which again came from Latin sibilare, to hiss, (think sibilant). A quick online search shows me the most common usage of persiflage now is to describe someone’s approach to a conversation as having “an air of persiflage“. I dare you to aim for that air today.

Until next time happy reading, persiflaging, and word quizzing,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Macabre

Hello,

This week’s word is macabre. I probably should have written about this at Halloween but I forgot amidst the excitement of pumpkin carving and costumed children. Don’t fret, I still have eldritch up my sleeve for Halloween 2019.

Plague doctor’s outfit displayed in Rothe House, Kilkenny, Ireland

Macabre (pronunciation here) is a wonderful word to describe anything gruesome, particularly if associated with death. Macabre with this meaning is in English from the late 1880s but it was used in English long before that and has a rather ancient origin.

To find its roots you need to go back to Old French where you had a danse macabré from the late 1300s. This dance of death was a type of morality play depicting Death and his victims dancing behind him. By the 1500s the performance and term had spread to English as Macabrees daunce.

Where the macabré part of the phrase came from is somewhat disputed. It may have been somebody’s surname but many believe it is a reference to the slaughter and martyrdom of the Maccabees in the apocryphal books of the Bible. The Maccabees led a successful revolt to re-establish Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem which is celebrated during Hanukkah. Later some of them were martyred for refusing to sacrifice their Jewish faith. They are now venerated as martyrs in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox faiths. It is these martyrs who were supposed to be depicted in the danse macabré, to inspire the faithful presumably.

If you’re curious about the rather macabre outfit pictured you may be interested to know that it’s a recreation of a plague doctor’s outfit from Tudor times and is on display in the excellent Rothe House in Kilkenny, a rare and beautiful 1600s Irish merchant’s house complete with period correct gardens.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and macabre wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

If you enjoyed this post, why not check out Wordfoolery’s book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictonary”? It tells the life stories of more than 200 villains, inventors, and fashion icons who gave their names as eponyms to the English language. Everybody from Guillotine to Molotov is included. Available on Amazon US and Amazon UK as paperback or kindle and also on Kobo and Apple books. (affiliate links)

Tinsel

Hello,

I hope you’re enjoying Christmas Eve. Preparations are well underway here at Wordfoolery HQ and the festive spirit has inspired me to explore the word tinsel today.

Tinsel edged noticeboard, with thanks to my daughter

I was surprised to find that tinsel can be a noun, adjective, and verb. The noun relates to threads, sheets, or strips of metal (or plastic) used to create a sparkling appearance in decorations and fabrics. The version I’m most familiar is the festoon of tinsel, a sparkling feather boa, slung around Christmas trees. Personally I prefer decorative ribbons on our tree, so the annual tinsel explosion happens in my daughter’s room instead.

Tinsel as an adjective describes anything which is like tinsel, or is gaudy. Tinsel as a verb is the act of interweaving or adorning with tinsel. I assume this means if you drape your tree in tinsel you are tinseling when you do it.

Tinsel is a surprisingly old word. Its first usage was as early as 1538. It entered Middle English as tyneseyle which was a cloth interwoven with metallic thread and the word probably came from Anglo-French tencelé which itself came from the verb estenceler – to sparkle.

The king of England at the time was the Tudor monarch Henry VIII. He’d buried three wives by that point and had a fondness for rich fabrics like cloth of gold so we may have him to thank for the fashion for tinsel as courtiers would copy his style.

By the 1650s the idea of tinsel had become associated with things which were showy but ultimately of little worth. Again this fall in tinsel’s reputation may be related to politics as by 1650 England had been rocked by Cromwell and the Roundheads. Charles II sat on the throne but had been forced to curtail some of the more over the top aspects of his court fashions for fear of following his father to the chopping block.

The use of Tinsel Town to describe Hollywood dates to 1972. Although it also describes my daughter’s bedroom at this time of year.

Happy Christmas, and until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Chicanery

Hello,

This week’s word is chicanery (pronunciation here). Chicanery means to achieve your goal via subterfuge. It’s not a word you hear that often now, even though it is certainly something that still happens, with sad regularity.

The word history of chicanery is enshrouded in enough mystery to suggest subterfuge. It entered English in the early 1600s in a legal context. It referred to quibbling and sophistry and came from the similar French word chicanerie and the Middle French verb chicaner (to quibble or to pettifog). How it reached French is a little more debatable. It may be from the Middle Low German schikken (to arrange) or may even be from a golf-like game once played in the Languedoc region of the south of France. Perhaps early French lawyers liked to quibble over points of law as they got in a round before court?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Nonchalance

Hello,

This week’s word is nonchalance, which turned up on a list of “favourite words” on the internet recently and reminded me that I rather like the concept of a nonchalant saunter.

First up, what does nonchalance mean? It’s a state of casualness or cool indifference. If you’re strolling along without a care in the world, you’re being nonchalant.

Words the French Gave Us

Nonchalant is a gift to English from the French, but first we have to go back a bit further. The Latin verb calere means “to be hot”. The medieval French took that idea of heat into their language as chaloir (and present participle chalant) but twisted the meaning to be less about heat and more about being concerned. Both those uses in French have effectively died out now, so don’t trot them out on your holidays.

Allegedly chaland in French has the same root and means “customer or client” but Google Translate has that as meaning barge and my old French-English dictionary agrees, so perhaps the customer meaning is an old one. Hard to see how barges relate to heat or concern.

Anyhow, the version of calere which persisted in French was nonchaloir which meant “being indifferent to or having no concern for”. That gave them nonchalant and nonchalant transferred, with the same meaning, to English in 1734 and hasn’t left since.

Anybody who has visited France will know that they do a rather good line in the old nonchalant gallic shrug, so we shouldn’t be surprised at the word’s root.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and nonchalant shrugging,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)