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Word play: frisee. January 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: , ,

Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I are not only avid readers, we make our living as freelance writers and editors. All of which is to say that we love words and think about them a lot. So it’s not often that a word sneaks up on us and takes us by surprise, but it happened to me last night.

I was making a colorful salad to go with the creamy pasta, baked sweet potatoes, and broccoli our friend Ben and I were planning to have for supper. In winter, especially, I like to use some of the fuller-bodied greens in salads, and one of my favorites is frisee (which actually has an accent over the first e and is pronounced “free-ZAY”), aka curly endive (which you can pronounce “EN-dive” or “ahn-DEEV,” depending on how French you’re feeling). So here I am, enjoying the delicate color and tightly frilled leaves as I separate them and mix them into the salad and share them with our parrot Plutarch and the parakeets, and it suddenly hits me: frizzy. Frizzy is an English mispronunciation of frisee!

I don’t know why this had never dawned on me before. Our language is rich in mangled mispronunciations of French and other languages, and frizzy/frisee would seem like an obvious example. (One of my other favorites is a little less obvious: bedlam, for Bethlehem. Our Lady of Bethlehem was a famous hospital for the insane in London, which is why “bedlam” is now a synonym for chaotic, unpredictable behavior.)

From homely items like buckles, buttons, bracelets, and even biscuits to beef, pork, mutton, and trout, experts estimate that we’ve gotten between one-third and two-thirds of our language from the French, starting back in 1066 when William the Conqueror made Norman French the official tongue of the English nobility. (Tongue, language, experts, estimate, official, conqueror, and nobility among them.)

And the farther back it entered the language, the more mangled it’s likely to have become over time. Thus, comparatively modern imports like beau, bon mot, bonbon, canape, adieu, au revoir, ballet, buffet, cloche, cabaret, cafe, chauffeur, and bon vivant, as well as cooking techniques like saute and flambe (pardon the Luddite-induced lack of accents) and dishes like ratatouille, quiche, mousse, and souffle, have retained their spellings and close enough pronunciations to be far more recognizable to the French than older imports like boil, bacon, bullet, catholic, theater, chef, salad, lettuce, tea, and coffee. There are even French words that differ wildly in their British and American pronunciations, both of which would be unrecognizable to the French: lieutenant comes to mind (loo-TEN-ant to us Americans, LEF-tenant to our British cousins, lee-eww-teh-NAHNT in the original).

But frizzy and frisee? Sheesh. Why didn’t I see that right away? Maybe it’s because my own experience of frizzy is so far removed from the gentle curls of the salad green. On a hot, humid day, my hair transforms itself into something worthy of Louis XIV’s finest wigmaker. Louis, wherever you are, eat your heart out. Or maybe have a lovely frisee salad instead.

          ‘Til next time,




1. Mike Cohen - July 16, 2012

Likewise pastie (& pasty) and the french pastille, caddie ( & caddy) and cadet, petty and petite, and so on….

Hi Mike! Thanks for adding to our lexicon!

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