16 April 2010

Napoleonic Apocrypha

"Pumpernickel" -- it's a fun word to say, and that alone should ensure its longevity. In our earliest days of idle chatter, my brother and I made a habit of teasing out the strange sounds of certain words or phrases. "Crush" was a particular favorite of his, especially when fronted by the word "Orange". Every time he said it he'd slosh the words around in his mouth like a cold slush of flavored ice. I was always partial to "tapioca" after Shel Silverstein's dapper lion Lafcadio pointed out its virtues along with "marshmallow". Tapioca, tapioca. It pops and clucks at the right speed, just like a spoonful of pudding in your mouth.

As is the case with a number of strange words, Pumpernickel has an interesting etymology -- and would have more than one, if it were possible for all the rumors to be true. I'm going to ignore all of them except the one LEAST likely to be true, just because I love the story so much.

As rumor has it, Napoleon Bonaparte once owned a horse named Nicole. While on a campaign in Germany, his soldiers brought him samples of a curious dark bread made locally. Napoleon either looked at the bread and dismissed it outright, or had a nibble and passed it over. Either way, he was said to have remarked "C'est pain pour Nicole" -- "This is bread for Nicole..." An insult, alas, but also possibly the birth of a new word -- a Napoleonic Neologism. Chew on the phrase "Pain Pour Nicole" in your best fake French accent and you'll hear it nice and clearly.

As in the parlor game "Telephone", or "Chinese Whispers", or "Gossip", or whatever you call it in your part of the world, colossal misunderstandings can trigger a false sense of understanding as often as they lead to outright confusion. I don't know why, but I have always loved a good misunderstanding. They highlight in a backwards manner the best traits of human language: that it is incredibly complex, and yet effortlessly malleable. The term Mondegreen has been coined to describe the phenomenon for mishearing song lyrics, but we have no such word for misunderstandings on a larger scale ... say, for example, an entire conversation.

Back when I was living in Bellingham I had a confused but coherent five minute chat with a friend about a trip we had organized together. The hitch was the fact that he assumed I was talking about the trip we had planned for the following day to Spokane, while I was referring to a trip down to the local record shop we would be taking later that afternoon. When we finally uncrossed our wires and realized what the hell the other had been talking about, we marveled at our ability to paper over what must have been a dozen or more slight incongruities is our respective stories, all for the sake of keeping the conversation we thought we were having well on track.

I note too with giddiness the seeming non-sequitur statement added to a recent email from my mother to me: "Also, I am not on Facebook." It was a non-sequitur with no catalyst. I had not asked her anything about Facebook, and wondered what had inspired her admission until i realized how close the T and the W are to one another on standard English keyboards. It was a typo. A change of a single letter had turned the intended meaning of an entire sentence into its opposite. Awesome.

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