In Food and drink, History, Music, What is, Words

I know what you’re thinking: I should have done this word on March 3rd, when everyone was still suffering after Shrove Tuesday. But then you’d have missed out on the joys of spring, added to which I’m not talking about pan ache, I’m talking about panache. They’re two very different things.

Mind you, I thought I knew what panache was until I found myself proofreading a menu this week and suddenly came face-to-face with a – wait for it – ‘panache of vegetables’. A panache? A PANACHE?! (Write that enough times and it starts to look like a tune by The Shadows.) Since when did panache take the indefinite article?

Well, since about 1550 actually. A panache was originally a tuft of feathers, as worn by a knight. This incongruously effeminate device was deployed not merely as an adornment of the helmet but to serve the practical purpose of identifying said noble from the worthless foot soldiers on the field of battle – the expendable mace fodder with the life expectancy of a phone charger.

The horse was another distinguishing feature.

There’s an interesting bit of circular etymology here (we all need a bit of circular etymology from time to time, don’t we?). The French, from whom we assumed the word panache, acquired it themselves from the Italian Penacchio (not to be confused with Pinocchio, although there is a big nose theme evolving here, as you will see). Penacchio came from the Latin pinnaculum, meaning a small feather. Our word pinnacle, meaning a topmost point, comes from the same root, so it seems entirely appropriate that you should stick a feather in your cap.

The real question is, how did panache come to be an abstract noun meaning flamboyant style? For that we can thank Edmond Rostand, writer of the play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the big-nosed hero’s dying words are ‘J’emporte, malgré vous, mon panache’ (‘I bear away, despite you, my panache’). Cyrano lived and died by the principle of panache and epitomised the image of the sharp-tongued insulting Frenchman, as revisited in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – ‘Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries’ – or the ticket officer at (hang on a minute) Bergerac station, who clearly understood my attempts to buy a return to Toulouse, despite the dumb look on his stupid face.

Which brings us neatly back to the panache of vegetables. Menu writing is a very creative art. Jane Austen dreamed of being a menu writer. The panache of vegetables inherits the crown from the medley of potatoes, which conjures up images of a bunch of King Edwards and Maris Pipers swimming the butterfly or rolling the hits of Billy Joel into one seamless ditty, doesn’t it? No? Just me then.

But get this: the medley originates from the same battlefield as the panache. While the knight was busy trying to keep his plume clean, the phone chargers were meddling in the medley, the mêlée, the muddle, the mixer, until the knight galloped in and chopped them all in half.

Bon appetit!

Get your menus professionally proofread by Balance, just in case your veg is getting rowdy.

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