or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, January 15, 2010


I will be taking my own sweet time getting to the point of all this, but there is a point to all this, so do hang around.

Jim and I went to see a show at the Bleecker Street Theatre when we were in New York last May. When we dropped by around noon the day of the show to pick up our tickets, we were surprised to see that the lobby was mobbed with little girls. They were there, it turned out, to see a musical called Pinkalicious, based on a children's book I had never heard of.

I am enormously fond of English's penchant for treating words as pieces of recombinant DNA, hacking them apart and reconstructing them in various forms, even if they don't withstand a moment's analysis. If there is such a thing as an alcoholic, someone addicted to alcohol, why not a workaholic or a chocoholic? Those words don't make any sense if you dissect them, but they don't need to: their meaning is immediately evident. Same thing with "-licious"; "delicious" doesn't break down into "de" plus a root word*, but you can create a character called "Pinkalicious" or a girl-group called "Girlicious" and the point of it is obvious.

Or, of course, you can do something even cleverer: create a candy shaped like soda-pop bottles and call it Soda-Licious. Get it? "So delicious"?

Jim didn't, for years. His brain just doesn't work that way. (As he put it to me in an e-mail, "It's like there's the word, the spelling of it and the sound of it and they don't really hang out together in my head.") My brain, though, generally does work that way, but even so, I miss stuff that should have been obvious to me in retrospect.

Last night at work I was taking a break and, as always, my eyes were flicking around the room looking for input while I was knitting (a mindless hat for a co-worker, something that requires no concentration whatever). Eventually they settled on a container of candy that someone had brought in. "Marshmallow hearts", it said on the lid, and just below that the inevitable French translation: "Coeurs à la guimauve."

"Guimauve". "Gui.....mauve". Mauve! "Mauve" is the French version of German "malve", which is the source of English "mallow"! How can I not have ever noticed that "guimauve" is decomposable in pretty much the same way as "marshmallow" is?

Here's what really boggles me: I wrote about marshmallows, and mallow/malve/mauve, four and a half years ago and never made the connection. How is that even possible? Was I just not paying attention?

Anyway. "Guimauve" does in fact break apart into "gui-" and "-mauve", and you will never, ever guess where "gui-" comes from if you don't know. It's not that "gui" is the French word for "marsh", because it isn't; "gui" is a word, but it means "mistletoe"**. (I know this only because there was a long-gone perfume called Sous le Gui--"under the mistletoe"--in a book about Lalique bottles.) In English, the mallow plant is also known as "white mallow", and in Dutch "witte malve". The English word for "war" comes from Old French "werre", which in modern French is "guerre", and likewise "William" comes from Old French "Willaume", now "Guillaume". So French "guimauve" is actually a form of "white mallow" or "witte malve", with the first half transliterated and abbreviated into French "gui'".

* Well, it does, of course, in an etymological sense. "Delicious" is from Latin "delicia", "a delight, a delicacy", from "de-", "away", plus "lacere", "to deceive: to lure"; something that's delicious is distractingly pleasurable and commands all your attention.

** I don't in turn know where "gui" comes from. Wiktionnaire doesn't know, either, and the other versions of the word listed mostly look like either "mistletoe" or Latin "viscum".


Post a Comment

<< Home