A few weeks ago I started a regular feature on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley called LinguaFile, in which I present the hosts with a word and have them try to guess its origins. Last time it was discombobulate, and for this week's episode I went with another one of my favorite words, lagniappe, meaning "a bonus gift (as given to a customer from a merchant)."
You can listen to the podcast here. As before, I presented the hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield with a mystery word, which they had to guess from my clues. And as before, Mike guessed the word with alarming speed (simply from the clue that the word is an anagram of appealing). With the guessing out of the way, we then launched into the long, strange trip that lagniappe took on its way to English, eventually ending in New Orleans.
That trip started in the Peruvian Andes, where speakers of the Quechua language (used by the Inca Empire at the time of Spanish conquest) had a verb yapay meaning "to add" and a noun yapa meaning "something added." As described by Joseph E. Gillet in a 1935 article for the journal American Speech, it shows up early on as a mining term, meaning "the small quantity of quicksilver which is added to the silver-bearing ore to facilitate the smelting." But it also became used by merchants for the little extra something that they would throw in after a transaction is complete.
The word yapa and the practice it described spread around Latin America, changing to ñapa along the way (ñ being the Spanish representation of the palatal "ny" sound). Gillet traces its journey as it "made its way across the southern continent and, reaching the coast east of Panama, crossed the Caribbean, touched Puerto Rico and the eastern end of Cuba and made a happy landing at New Orleans." Many Spanish-speaking Creoles from Puerto Rico and Cuba settled in New Orleans in the late eighteenth century when the city was part of New Spain, so it makes sense that ñapa would enter via the Caribbean route.
When Spanish speakers and French speakers came into contact in the Crescent City, ñapa got appended with the French article la, and then la ñapa tranformed into lagniappe among New Orleanians. In that form, it became known to visitors of the city in the mid- to late nineteenth century, including Mark Twain, who called it "a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get" in Life on the Mississippi (1883). Writing in The Chautauquan in 1891, Grace King exalted the lagniappe as a model for others outside of New Orleans to follow:
One who is accustomed to the quaint French-Spanish-African custom finds a disappointing stinginess of word and deed in a lagniappeless country.... Is it not good for us to be under obligations one to another, to give lagniappes and receive them? Can a pleasant human intercourse be based upon the "small profit, quick returns, and cash system" of the sharp trader? Have we not each of us a little lagniappe of our own to give away, some little part of our own individual commodity? Can we not with benefit to our hearts and to our language adopt in the one the custom, and in the other the word, and so amend both?
Despite these paeans to the lagniappe, not long thereafter, in 1910, came word that New Orleans was seeking to end the practice. Campbell Macleod, writing in Sunset, decried the news:
The city of New Orleans was recently in a state of ferment over the edict that went forth that after that date no more lagniappe would be allowed to be given away. The curious feature of the fight is that grocers and those merchants who gave it are fighting quite as much as the recipients of the gifts. And the bewildered stranger seeing the aggressive signs posted everywhere has asked "What is lagniappe?" Lagniappe is the quaint Creole custom of giving good measure. The volatile downtown clerk in that section of the city which someone has happily called "Lagniappe Town," loves to explain to curious visitors that it is simply a token of his and his employer's frien'ship for you—to make you remember the store where a friend, even if he is a stranger, is recognized at sight and decorated with a souvenir of his affinity's affection.
It's monstrous to think there will be no more lagniappe given in New Orleans. The Crescent City without lagniappe will be the Carnival without the king. The taking away of it will assume the tragedy of removing an ancient landmark.
The practice of merchants giving out lagniappe with every purchase did indeed fade out in New Orleans in the twentieth century, as did similar cultural conventions elsewhere. (In coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the Dictionary of American Regional English informs us, the equivalent was called broadus, another Caribbean creole import related to the Portuguese word barata meaning "bargain.") But lagniappe continues in its more metaphorical use as an extra gift that can grease the wheels of social interaction. In the American lexicon, it's the gift that keeps on giving.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer