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Friday, August 28, 2015

Drinking with panache

Last week we looked at what the Germans and English call a mixture of beer and 7-Up, but I haven't exhausted this topic yet (and am still in need of summer beverages). Today it's the turn of the French, who call it a panaché.

Why do they use this word that we English associate with a kind of swaggering verve?

Originally, in the Renaissance, a panache was a decorative tuft of feathers on a helmet. Ultimately, the word derived from the Latin pinnaculum (wing). Often these tufts of feathers were of different colours, as in this 16th-century Spanish helmet:
I think I shall get a panache for my bicycle helmet.

As a result, by the mid-19th century, the French had created an adjective, panaché, designating something, especially food, made of a mixture of different elements. So you can have a glace panachée (ice cream with two or more flavours) or a salade panachée (tossed salad). An anisette panachée (mixed with absinthe, and no doubt something to be regretted) was quite popular. The diluted beer acquired the name panaché in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, however, because of its association with military attire, over the centuries the word panache had come to be associated with a chivalrous and manly disposition, a kind of heroic bravura exemplified by Cyrano de Bergerac:


And indeed it was the first English translation of Edmond de Rostand's 1897 play about the swashbuckling lover that introduced "panache" in this sense to the English language. It is hard to imagine not having "panache" at our disposal. So let us all raise a panaché to Cyrano!

By the way, if you ever have a chance to see Birmingham Royal Ballet's Cyrano, seize it!
Birmingham Royal Ballet - Cyrano's Nose from Birmingham Royal Ballet on Vimeo.

Carl Davis's score for David Bintley's Cyrano from Birmingham Royal Ballet on Vimeo.

I will be offering my very popular "Rollicking Story of the English Language" course this fall. For more info, click here:

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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.