love words the way I love tantalizing ingredients for a recipe. Words taste and smell good to me, especially the words of another language, whose sounds are often so very different from those I know.
Living in Europe has brought with it a veritable feast of words. I think to myself, would I rather wrap my lips around “blow-dry” or coiffure, pushing my cheeks together to get just the right “eu” (or be immediately corrected!)? Do I wish to ask for “shrink-wrapped sausages” or salsiccia sotto vuoto, literally “under empty”? That one really tickles me as so many Italian words and phrases do.
I remember almost making a terrible gaffe in a restaurant in my early days in Rome after having learned that very large green grapes are referred to in slang as uva cogliona, testicular grapes. My husband poked me under the table just as I was about to send the waiter into shock.
I have no doubt that the sound of Italian charms most lovers of any language, even if English dictionaries are often double the size of others and even if the lines of Dylan Thomas, W.S. Merwin, Wallace Stevens and others wrench the heart and feed the soul. Still, Dante and Voltaire were not shabby.
Poubelle instead of “garbage” makes the chore less tedious, and oh, how I love the sound and taste of pot au feu over “beef stew,” pommes de terre over “potatoes” and even the adjective heureux over “happy,” which is a nice enough sound, but the French word suggests levels and nuances of happiness that hint at even more to come.
In Italy I enjoy my riled and angry feathers, penne all’arrabbiata, a little more than “pasta with hot peppers,” and though many names of French dishes sound as if they could only be served at Louis XVI banquets, they still do roll off the tongue easily. An amuse-gueule tempts me far more than an “mug appetizer.”
Don’t get me wrong, as a Southerner some words I hold dear to heart, such as “corn pone” and “grits, greens, and gravy” — which admittedly might sound lovelier and more embroidered in French: pain de semoule or semoule et ses legumes avec sauce Espagnole.
Then again, I just can’t find it in my heart to love the misnamed “shrimp scampi” (literally, shrimp shrimp) over mazzancolle alla griglia or “sandwich” over tramezzino.
Perhaps it is the fanaticism of the recent convert. Europe called to me long ago, and now that I’m here I embrace the quirky ways Europeans adapt English to be savvy, hip, and, well, American, for domestic consumption — often in the manner that we in America misspell dishes on Italian and French menus.
In France, I love seeing shops called “Pull Stop” (a sweater boutique) or the wonderful “Dou Dou” dress shops This spills over into products, such as Daddy brand sugar, which makes me smile every time I buy it. Imagine calling a sugar “Daddy”! Just marvelous.
Do you wish to put on your shoes or your chaussures?
How about slipping into a peignoir instead of a housecoat or bathrobe? Something about the word peignoir conjures up Ginger Rogers swishing into a room in satin, marabou-trimmed slippers or a very old semi-porn movie about the Fuller Brush man and the housewife. Whatever the image, I’m still looking for that peignoir in second-hand stores.
Yet democratic words from our European neighbors, specifically France — liberté, égalité, fraternité — are sweet words to our American ears: liberty, equality, brotherhood.
And now, there is a new word in my never-ending banquet — a word that will be, for me, the pièce de résistance