A Language Epiphany

Today, Twelfth Night, marks the beginning of the Carnival season – a time of the year that once gave New Orleanians a boost when it came to spelling one word. 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 the day would have asked only for the spelling of 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 or that it became the more main stream sounding Czech Republic.

For all the brilliance that our command of certain words might suggest, there are a couple of native misspellings largely due to Carnival that could darken the glow. New Orleanians elsewhere need to be careful not to write about the ship’s “krewe,” and locals, long used to seeing the vehicle at the head of the parade, 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.

In other ways, we have a special relationship with some words. There was only one good result from the Cabildo fire in 1988: New Orleanians learned the word “cupola.” Prior to that, anyone looking at the small tower-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 Fairgrounds was ablaze. (The 20th anniversary was a few weeks ago.) By then the firefighters, the TV reporters, and the onlookers all knew to say, “there goes the cupola” as the roof crashed.

Like “cupola,” there are certain words that circumstance made New Orleanians more aware of than people who live elsewhere. I’m 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 and loans” places.  The emphasis here is on perfectly good, though not commonly used, words in the English language that suddenly took hold here.

One such word is “platonic.” Derived from Plato, the word was not part of the common language in any city outside of, perhaps, Athens. But in the 1970s, Richard Collins, a professor at the University of New Orleans, wrote a book called The Underground Gourmet. Collins 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 the bread pudding.

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.”

That said, may your Carnival be platonic and your cupola always shining.



BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and online.



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