Friday, April 8, 2011

Maurice, the bagatelles, hurry up.

Here, this is me trying to be more disciplined and write more often. I don't plan on writing anything good tonight. But I want to write something, you hear? So, I have a word for the day. I almost wrote about this one last night, but I was too tired. The word is "bagatelle." I'll give you three guesses as to which language English borrowed this word from. That's right, you don't need three guesses: it's French. Thank you battle of Hastings.

Oddly enough, a bagatelle is not something edible. Lexical delectation only. The most commonly used meaning of bagatelle these days is "a trifle." But again, not the kind of trifle you eat, rather "something of little importance." Its second meaning has to do with a game which involves "rolling balls into scoring areas," or so says Merriam Websters. Well, that sounded rather strange and a little suspicious to me, so I consulted other dictionaries and eventually YouTube, which revealed bagatelle to be something that looked like an ancestor of the pinball machine. It has little pins and obstacles blocking the holes that you are trying to get the balls in. Actually, it is a macro version of one of those little hand-held affairs that used to be popular before Gameboys came to be. They had little steel BB's that you would try to roll around and get to stick into various slots. Anyway, a bagatelle looks like a four-foot by three-foot version of one of those.

The third definition is "a short literary or musical piece in light style," whatever that means. I think Beethoven wrote a few bagatelles or something. The end.

So, most of the contemporary ways to introduce this word into your daily life would be to use it in the first sense--a trifle. Well, I started out thinking that this would be a good idea, but I have changed my mind. It just sounds rather pretentious, I'm beginning to think. I guess a lot of French words do, but can you imagine breaking out this new word in public:

Friend: Hey, Cort, how are you doing? My, but that is a fetching waistcoat you have on.

Cort: Oh, this old thing; it's just a bagatelle, really.

Friend: It's a what?

Cort: Just a bagatelle.

Friend: Is he a designer?

Cort: No, no, it's just a trifle.

Friend: Gross, are you supposed to eat it?

Cort: No, a trifle, you know, something of little importance.

Friend: Oh...

Cort: Sorry...I...

Friend: Um...Hey, I've got to run.

So, really, be careful with this one.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wherefore art thou Farrago?

I found a note that I sent to myself, months ago, about the word Farrago (pronounced Fuh-rah-go) if I ever wanted to do etymology again. This blog has certainly lost that original focus, though I admit that there was not much to lose as this blog consists of less than twenty posts. Unfortunately, I don't even remember where I came across this word, but it is just the kind of word I like to highlight here, as it doesn't get used much, but it certainly could.

Farrago is "a confused mixture or hodgepodge." See--there are endless possibilities. It comes from the Latin "farragin," which has something to do with "mixed cattle fodder." Some of the dictionaries I consulted also hint at some relation with barley, whose Latin counterpart I keep seeing as "far spelt", but I can't tell, with my limited linguistic training, whether "far spelt" is a translation, or if the "far" is Latin for "spelt". Sorry, just geeking out a little. Anyway, it's a very old word, used as early as 1623.

It can be used in so many charming ways. For example, "This gallery has a fine farrago of artwork." Or, "My life is a 'farragin' farrago right now!" Or as my wife might say to me, "Honey, what on earth is that farrago you are making in the kitchen...I'm not eating that."

I haven't once seen it used as a verb, but I think that's a shame. Think of how useful it could be: "Excuse me, sir, could you repeat the question--I'm a little farragoed from last night's office party." Or, "No, I still don't get it; I think my parents farragoed me as a child." Or, "How would you like your eggs: sunny-side up, scrambled, or totally farragoed?"

Seriously, this word is worth a test-drive. But please--farrago responsibly.

Monday, April 4, 2011

You Say Pajama...

Just before going to bed the other night, my wife and I got into one of our favorite past-times...arguing about words of course. Usually, I use a word--something that might come up on the GRE--and my wife challenges it as though our life was a never-ending game of scrabble or something. Then we argue about the connotations in which it can be used and finally pull out Winston (my red, Random House Webster's dictionary) to settle the matter.

Well, on the night in question, instead of me commenting on her pulchritude and proceeding to argue its usage, we decided to guess the origin of the word Pajama. I know what you're all thinking; you want to invite us both to your next party. It was her idea this time. We were just lying there in the dark and she said, in a very serious tone of voice, "What language do you suppose the word 'pajama' came from?" I love this woman. At first, I guessed it was from some Arabic language, and said so very confidently like I had just looked it up this afternoon. I paused for effect... "You just made that up!" she exclaimed, calling my bluff. "You're right" I said, "but I bet I'm close."

I suddenly remembered that the word "Panjandrum" was Hindi--which is completely incorrect, by the way--and felt sure that pajama must be as well. Winston was called forth, and sure enough, he claims that "pajama" entered English in the late 18th century via Hindi and Persian. The pajama, which literally means "leg garment," (pay=leg jama=garment) was very popular in the Middle East and India when colonial English types noticed how much more comfortable Sikhs and Muslims were in their loose-fitting trousers. And of course they were embarrassed about being copy cats, so they took to only wearing them at night, when no one else was looking. Ha! The cat is out of the bag now, you empire-bent colonialists. Now, everyone knows.

Still, it's a shame that we in the West can't seem to make our fashion justify the wearing of comfortable clothing for more than a few years at a time, except for our nightclothes. Yeah, I'm talking about skinny-jeans, which I do not recommend sleeping in, or wearing on any occasion other than to 1980s-punk-rock parties.