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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, October 7, 2011

Profiting from profiteroles

I was recently at a ballet performance in Japan (you can see pictures of it here) and was quite thrilled to discover that the New National Theatre in Tokyo serves chocolate-glazed cream puffs at the intermission. How very civilized. Because I felt that I ought to have the full Japanese theatre experience, I of course indulged. Way better than the cookies we get at the theatre in Toronto! This got me thinking about the word "profiterole": why are small cream puffs called this? In French, "profiterole" is a diminutive of the word "profit" which, in addition to having the monetary sense it has in English, also has a more general sense of "benefit". Apparently the Renaissance author Rabelais (who was as inventive with the French language as Shakespeare was a few decades later with English) invented the word "profiterole" to mean "a little benefit or gratification" and shortly thereafter it was being used for small dumplings. In the next century, such dumplings were made by hollowing out a small bread roll, stuffing it with a filling, and then simmering it in soup. The similarity with little cream puffs meant that by the 19th century they also came to be known as "profiteroles", and we English speakers quite happily borrowed both the dessert and the word from the French.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.