Monday, August 31, 2015

No Extra Charge

Years ago I heard the word lagniappe I (pronounced lan-yap), used to mean “something extra”—a bonus thrown in without extra charge. I assumed it was a French word, and I used it in conversation with a friend who I knew was fluent in French. He had no idea what I was talking about. I immediately turned to my handy Larousse dictionary to confirm my erudition--and to my astonishment lagniappe was not listed!

It turns out that lagniappe isn’t French at all. It’s New Orleans Creole, and it originated as a word to describe something extra given to customers by shopkeepers and street vendors. Bakers, for example, might throw in a thirteenth beignet to make a “baker’s dozen,” or vegetable-sellers would add a free bunch of cilantro or chili peppers to a larger purchase.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain observed of his visit to New Orleans, “We picked up one excellent word -- a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice, limber, expressive, handy word -- 'lagniappe.' They pronounce it lanny-yap. …. It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop — or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying — ‘Give me something for lagniappe.’ The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don't know what he gives the governor; support, likely.”

The most probable theory about the origin of lagniappe is that it is a corruption of la ñapa, which in some Spanish dialects means “the gift, something added.” The term can be traced back to the Quechua word yapay (“to increase; to add”). It is an ancient custom in Andean markets to ask for a ñapa when making a purchase.

Never one to hog the spotlight (or to work when he can avoid it), the Bard of Buffalo Bayou this week offers readers a bit of lagniappe­—a limerick by none other than Mark Twain himself!
            A man hired by John Smith and Co.
            Loudly declared he would tho.
            Man that he saw
            Dumping dirt near his store.
            The drivers, therefore, didn’t do.

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