At the Wording Desk
The Spider and the Fly
“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've many curious things to show when you are there.”
“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair ─ can ne'er come down again.”
by Mary Howitt, 1829
I memorized that ditty in Grade Three at Dunnville Public School. When I was a little boy in the 1940s most farmhouses had a “front parlour.” Only in town could one find a living room. The parlour was the chamber of the home with the best furniture, where formal guests were received, where close relatives post mortem were laid out in their caskets for visitation, often under a problematical painting of a blond Jesus who looked like a Norwegian winkle-gatherer unaccountably clad in a bed sheet, instead of a seedy Jewish rebel. Grandpa could never lie dead in a village funeral home. One was buried from one’s home parlour; all other venues were anathematic.
In those etymon-free days I never bothered to wonder about the origin of the words with which the common rooms of North American houses were named. The word parlour began in a medieval French convent or monastery as parloir, a room in which visitors were greeted, a room where monks and nuns could talk to guests, parloir from the French verb parler ‘to speak, to talk’ which gave our Parliament ‘a speaking place where politicians could talk’ and an informal word for a friendly chat or a discussion of terms at the end of a battle, a parley. The jargon of a trade or the mode of discourse among a defined group is parlance, a noun also derived from parler.
In more severe religious orders where silence was enjoined for a virtual perpetuity, a parloir was a mere chink in a wall or an iron-barred grate through which brief words might be exchanged by fleeting visitors, relatives of the sisters and brethren.
“Mother's in the kitchen washing out the jugs,
Sister's in the pantry bottling the suds,
Father's in the cellar mixin' up the hops,
Johnny's on the front porch watchin' for the cops.”
The members of this Prohibition-era family would never have cared that a pantry was a little room adjoining the kitchen where one first kept the bread, from early Anglo-Norman French forms like painterie, panetrie, pantere, panterie, pantrie ‘storeroom for bread’ from French pain ‘bread’ from Latin panis ‘bread.’ Later, other not immediately perishable food goods might be stored as well in the pantry.
“I cook with wine; sometimes I even add it to the food.” ― W.C. Fields
Even the unschooled in etymology can sometimes hear that kitchen is the cooking room, the word related to Dutch keuken and German Küche. But it is not pristinely Teutonic. German cooks borrowed it early from Roman soldiers whose Latin for kitchen was cocina from the verb coquere ‘to cook.’
The little space under the roof of a house is a pure Greek word, from the same adjective Attic that means ‘pertaining to Attica, the area of ancient Greece that contained the city of Athens.’ At the end of the sixteenth-century was coined a pseudo-classical architectural phrase, Attic arch, which referred to a lower story above the main orders of a façade and hence, eventually, an attic was all the rooms immediately below a roof.
Yet another little storage room off the kitchen was set aside to preserve meat and its derivative fats, like the lard from bacon. In Old French the word for bacon was lard from Latin lardum, laridum ‘pork fat,’ possibly cognate with classical Greek λᾱρῑνός larinos ‘fat’ and λᾱρός laros ‘pleasant to taste.’
Cellar began as a small storeroom either above ground or underground. Classical Latin cellarium was a storeroom from cella ‘a small enclosed space.’
Dining Room Surprise
The meaning of dining room is self-evident but its antecedent, the verb to dine, contains an etymological surprise in its relationship with our leaned adjective jejune ‘empty, fasting’ from classical Latin jejunus hungry, dry, barren, unproductive, scanty, meager.’ When jejune entered English use at the dawn of the seventeenth century its principal sense was ‘hungry, fasting’ but in the centuries afterward developed senses prevailed. Today jejune usually means juvenile in a bad sense, wanting in substance or maturity.
To dine evolved from a late Latin verb disjejunare ‘to break a food fast, to breakfast, to consume the first meal of the day, from the negative Latin prefix dis, usually expressive of undoing the action of the verb to which it is prefixed, so that Latin dis + jejunare ‘to fast, to go without food. A jejunium in Latin was a fasting. The bumpy etymological road leading to the form dine looks like this: Latin disjejunare > late Latin *disjunare > Old French disner > medieval Latin disnare > Italian disinare > French dîner > middle English dinner and to dine!
Thus English dine has the same etymon as the French verb déjeuner ‘to have lunch, to have breakfast.’
Note on a door: Out to lunch; if not back by five, out for dinner also.
July 02, 2016
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