Bill Casselman

A Fancy-Schmancy New Year’s Eve Word

Here's an excellent, modestly obscure word upon which to place a small wager at a New Year's Eve party. You bet the cultural know-it-all of the party that there is one word associated with New Year's Eve toasting that he/she cannot define.

Sabrage is using a saber to slice the top off a bottle of champagne, in French “sabrer la bouteille.”

Is this a gesture new to the realms of wacko celebratory excess? No. French cavalry officers began the custom more than 200 years ago, to add panache and verve to the banquet after the victory.






Properly executed, sabrage produces a clean cut of the glass neck of the champagne bottle and a modest pop. Bubbly spew from the beheaded bottle is minimal, according to the two Hussars I interviewed in a darkened banquet hall. The bottle of champers must be perfectly chilled and the saber razor-sharp.

Recently a Canadian chef and restauranteur described a wedding where the newly married couple were met on the church steps by 10 men in uniform who performed deft sabrage upon 20 bottles of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.

Champagne and wine maven Peter May writes, “A more dramatic method is ‘sabrage,’ invented by impatient cavalry officers who used their sabres to slice open bottles. In fact a table knife will do; remove the cage and metal foil. Find the seam along the neck, and holding the bottle with one hand at a slight upward angle slide the knife smoothly up the seam. As it strikes the rim the bottle top enclosing the cork will fly off.” 

Pertinent Etymology

A sword with a curved blade, sabre is ultimately a Hungarian word. It began slashing and swashing as the Magyar word száblya, was borrowed into Polish as szabla, then into German as Sabel (1428 C.E), Säbel, and Schabel, and then into French as sabre (1598 C.E.) and finally into English.

My apopemptic caution reminds those about to attempt sabrage not to permit its performance by a would-be sabriste who is already stiff as a boiled owl from the evening's tipplings. No one wants to greet Janus with spicules of bottle glass embedded in what was their oropharyngeal epithelium.

Janus was the two-faced Roman god of the New Year and January is named after him. Ol’ Janus had two faces so that one face could look backward into the abysm of the old year and the other face could look forward to the broad, sunlit uplands of hope promised by a new year! In the religion and myth of ancient Rome, Janus was invoked as the divine superintendent of gates, openings, new beginnings, doorways, passages and endings.

From Ianus came Latin ianua ‘door’ and ianitor Latin ‘door guard’ with its develped meanings after being borrowed into English as janitor.

Etymology of the Name Janus
Two ancient worthies pronounced upon the origin of the word Janus. There were other ancient guesses but only these two appear cogent to me. One said it was related to the verb hiare ‘to open’ with unaccountable loss of its initial aspirate, namely aitch. This verb is the source of a word for ‘gap’ or ‘opening’ still in English, hiatus. Roman writers Cicero, Ovid and Macrobius derived Ianus from the Latin verb ire ‘to go.’ All ancient etymologies Latin, Greek and Hebrew, must be taken with a grain of salt, for there was no developed science of inquiry into the origin of words, only guesses based on words that “sounded” similar.

Modern etymologists state that Ianus is a Latin reflex of a Proto-Indo-European root meaning movement, found in Sanskrit yana- and Avestan yah-, in Latin i- ‘go’ and Greek ei- found in classical Greek ειμι eimi ‘ I go.’


Bill Casselman, December 30, 2016

Text copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Increase your English vocabulary by learning words connected with year-end partying and drinking