or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Rough Stuff

I've read that Arabic is a rather flowery language (especially, I guess, compared to the comparatively businesslike and straightforward English), but if you want to read something really florid, you don't have to go any further than French fragrance advertising. Here's a typically swoony bit from the ad copy for L'Artisan Parfumeur's Piment Brûlant, a luscious concoction of red pepper and chocolate:

Le Philtre Rouge, un piment mexicain tout feu tout flammes, met le feu au chocolat! Un trace narcotique de pavot pour endormir les défenses eventuelles...et le fièvre et dans le sang!

which means, loosely translated, "The red philtre: a burning-hot Mexican pepper sets chocolate on fire! A narcotic touch of poppy quells any defenses, and the fever is in the blood!"

Hoo boy. In all fairness, the scent is hot stuff, but still. Anyway, there is a point to this, because that same bit of advertising copy ends as follows:

Le Philtre Rouge exaspère les passions

which means "the red philtre inflames the passions". But the French word the writer chose was "exaspère", which is clearly the progenitor or at least the intimate relative of English "exasperate", "to infuriate". You could never use the English word in that French context, which is what I found fascinating: the senses are similar, but the actual usages have clearly grown apart.

"Exasperate" is from the Latin "ex-", a standard intensifier, plus--and this is where it gets interesting--"asperare", "to roughen". (This is also the source of such English words as "asperity", "harshness", and "aspersion", "slander", not to mention the rarely heard "asperate", "to roughen", rarely heard because it sounds exactly like "aspirate", "to inhale".) The original sense of roughness is at an extreme metaphorical distance from both the English and the French descendants of the word.

I thought that perhaps "rasp" was related to "asperare", possibly through some oddball misdivision, but it turns out that, even though a rasp is rough, there isn't any point of contact, which is a bit of a disappointment. It was more of a surprise than a disappointment to learn that "raspberry" and "rasp" are similarly unrelated; an old word for "raspberry" was "raspis", which in turn came from a kind of wine (though not raspberry wine).

Speaking of raspberries, if I had to define the sound known as a Bronx cheer or raspberry without actually making one, I couldn't do better than Answers.com:

A derisive or contemptuous sound made by vibrating the extended tongue and the lips while exhaling.

Isn't that perfect? Their etymology is "possibly short for raspberry tart, rhyming slant for fart", to which I can only add, possibly?


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