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Good Letters

20081015-pacific-by-kelly-fosterWriters try not to repeat themselves, except when they mean to. Poetic forms such as the pantoum and villanelle use deliberate repetition to powerful effect. Sometimes, however, unintended repetitions emerge in the course of a story, essay or series, revealing unsuspected themes or buried urgencies. In that way, writing becomes discovery, like an archaeologist digging up artifacts in what accepted theory deems the wrong time and place. These collisions with grace aren’t always welcome; we rarely have time to follow their demands. Sometimes, though, repetitions are more amusing than challenging, a writer’s opportunity to glimpse his own, unspoken obsessions.

In both my last two posts for Good Letters, I used an unusual word, “pander,” once well, the second time rather clumsily. I doubt there’s any treasure waiting to be dug up there; it’s perfectly reasonable for it to be on one’s mind in an election year. Still, it was an opportunity to revisit this odd word’s source, and I’ve come to believe it’s always good to know where the things in one’s life come from, whether it’s food, words, wealth, or ideas.

From what I read, “pander” first entered the English language as the name “Pandare” in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer, in turn, took it from Boccaccio’s Filostrato, which includes the story of “Pandaro” arranging for a Trojan prince, Troilus, to meet Cressida, the daughter of a priest, during the Trojan War.

Like many wartime love affairs, this one ends badly. Betrayal, revenge and death make their usual cameo appearances before the story is over. Boccaccio may have taken his inspiration from the French trouvere (the northern equivalent of troubadour), Benoit de Sainte-More, but in any case, the story is of medieval invention, and full of salacious undertones.

By the time Shakespeare uses “pander” in his own telling of Troilus and Cressida (a bleak tragedy that makes more war than love), it had come to mean a pimp. So it does today, though what the panderer (or “pander,” the original form of the noun) sells need only be seedy, and not necessarily sexual. And that, of course, brings us back to the world of political campaigns, of promises made and seldom kept.

If you’ve listened to the candidate’s campaign appearances, you know that, as in most elections, the rhetoric can grow heated and ugly. Nonetheless, when opponents appear on the same stage, as in the so-called debates, there’s an effort to “make nice,” at least until the gloves come off.

“Nice” is not a word I often use, in part because it’s so bland and has the odor of affectation rather than true affection. The etymology of “nice” is wonderfully complex. The Latin root is nescius, meaning “ignorance,” and comes to England via the Old French nice, meaning “silly or foolish.” In its first recorded English usage at the end of the thirteenth century, it bears the French connotation, the equivalent of stupid or senseless.

Over succeeding centuries, its meaning changes from “timid,” to “fastidious,” to “dainty,” to “precise” to “agreeable,” and finally in the nineteenth century to “kind or thoughtful.”

I don’t know how much of this history Jane Austen knew, but her Northanger Abbey includes a delicious exchange:

“’I am sure,’ cried Catherine, ‘I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?’

“‘Very true,’ said Henry, ‘and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.’”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. also suggests some of the word’s historical contradictions in his Fifty-third Calypso of Bokonon, from the invented religion in his novel, Cat’s Cradle:

Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen—
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice—
So many different people
In the same device.

If I’m tempted to use “nice”in a sentence, I try to stop myself and ask whether another word, such as “kind,” (from the Old English gecynde, meaning “natural, native or related”) will do. I’d much rather my children were kind than nice. That will make them unfit for more careers than just politics, I know, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Kelly Foster


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