Words of Circumstance

Arthur Nead illustration

Had it not been for Richard Collins, life in New Orleans would be less platonic. Derived from “Plato,” the word, which in the local context referred to a passionate appreciation, isn’t generally part of the common language in any city outside of perhaps Athens, Greece. But in the 1970s Richard Collins, a professor at the University of New Orleans, wrote a book called The Underground Gourmet. Collins, who died this past January, was the first person to publish critiques of local restaurants. The book quickly became a local bestseller. Collins’ highest praise was to rate something as being “platonic.” Suddenly New Orleanians were applying the word to just about anything (platonic sneakers?) and not just bread pudding.

Circumstances give words more play in one community than in another. I am not talking about words such as “neutral ground,” “poor boy” and “muffuletta,” which are native to New Orleans, nor am I referring to idioms such as “alligator pear” and “homestead,” which were once commonly used locally to refer respectively to “avocado” and “savings & loans” companies. The emphasis here is on perfectly good, though not commonly used, words in the English language that suddenly took hold locally.

There was, for example, only one good result from the Cabildo fire in 1988, New Orleanians learned the word, “cupola.” Prior to that, anyone looking at the small dome-like objects rising from the building’s roof might have referred to them as, “those things on the top” or something equally eloquent. But the fire provided an education. That evening as people watched scenes of the fire on television, and heard bespectacled experts refer to the “cupola,” they also learned that the first syllable of the word is pronounced as in “cupid” and not as in “cup,”

Knowing about cupola proved handy in 1993, on the evening when the grandstand at the Fair Grounds was ablaze. By then the firefighters, the TV reporters and the onlookers all knew to say, “there goes the cupola” as the roof crashed.

Then there’s Gambit newspaper, whose name popularized a rather obscure term describing a chess strategy.

Unfortunately locals often confused the word for “gamut,” including a city councilman who was once proclaimed, “the choices run the gambit from A to Z.”

During the 1960s New Orleans may have ranked last in education, but there was one word that local kids knew how to spell better than kids anywhere else: “Czechoslovakia.” If the standardized IQ tests of that day would’ve asked only for the spelling that country, New Orleans would have seemed like a town of geniuses. The reason for the local aptitude was the glass Carnival beads that once came from that country. Every pair had a label tagged to it saying, “MADE IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA.” New Orleans kids marveled about the errant “Z” in the country’s name long before they knew where the country was located.

For all the brilliance that our command of certain words might suggest, there are a couple of native misspellings that could darken the glow. New Orleanians elsewhere need to be careful not to write about the ship’s “krewe” and locals need to be aware that the word “energy” does not have a “T” in it, although the name of the local power company would suggest otherwise.

Imagine, New Orleanians being known for their brilliance – even as far away as the former Czechoslovakia. That would truly be platonic.

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Reader Comments:
Mar 3, 2010 02:57 pm
 Posted by  FernGrrl

Mr. Laborde, thank you for this marvelous article. Perfect, just perfect.

For years--and in the various cities that I've lived--I've told people how and why I knew how to spell "Czechoslovakia." Many thought I was joking. Luckily, I still have one pair of those glass Mardi Gras beads left, and their tag is faded but in tact. And I also still have my parents copy of "The Underground Gourmet"--what a hit that was when it came out!

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