Monday, 31 December 2012

epergne

On the BBC2 TV antiques show Flog It! a member of the public had brought in a silver-plated object she owned and that she was hoping to auction. She wasn’t sure what it was; but the expert was at hand to tell her. “It’s a — a French word, it’s an eɪˈpeən — a French word for a table-centre display.”

Fair enough, except that the name of the object in question, epergne, is not a French word at all. Despite its spelling, which looks more or less French (though if it were really French it would probably have an acute accent on the first vowel, so épergne), and despite the more or less French pronunciation that the expert used (as if in French it were epɛʁɲ(ə) — despite this, there is no such word in French. The nearest French word that does exist is épargne epaʁɲ(ə); but that means ‘savings’, and has nothing whatsoever to do with table decorations.

So it’s all a bit of a mystery really. Here’s the OED:

In LPD I followed EPD in giving the mainpron as ɪˈpɜːn, with varprons e-, -ˈpeən. I did add a note, “not actually a French word”, and for that reason gave no French pronunciation. Perhaps I ought to have done, though, so as to cater for those, like the TV antiques expert, who pronounce it as if it were.

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