Daily Archives: January 30, 2009

claret

A word that may be less clear than it seems. Those who have not seen this word before may wonder if it is a woodwind or brass instrument. Those who know it to be a term for red Bordeaux wine may be tempted to pronounce it as a French word, with accent on the latter syllable and an unpronounced t. But you will find it is of that peculiar class of shibboleth where, if you don’t know and try to sound like you do know, you will more likely reveal yourself as not knowing than if you hadn’t tried. A parallel may be drawn with certain terminological distinctions between “upper-class” and “non-upper-class” English: if you say wealthy instead of rich, classy instead of smart, recollect instead of remember, perspire instead of sweat, pardon instead of what? and preserve instead of jam, you will sound like a mere Hyacinth Bucket, sounding “out” by the effort you make to sound “in.” Likewise, claret may be based on a French word – clairet – but it’s English now, I feel forced to declare it. A clairet (the French word), anyway, is a pale, pale version of a red wine, as they used to make them in France until the latter 1600s, the name coming from clair “clear,” whereas a claret (the English word) is a full-bodied, dry red Bordeaux of the style that was introduced by such châteaux as Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, and Margaux in the 1700s, and is often contrasted with the lighter (but not clairet) reds of Burgundy. But we don’t really drink “claret” in North America; we just call it Bordeaux. And from that name we expect a wine of some quality, whereas claret can as easily refer to a wine meant to be drunk in quantity, as it in turn likewise betimes makes the barristers and solicitors in John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories. But how does this word taste on your tongue? It starts with the same vocal gesture as glass – and glug, and a bunch of shiny words – but voiceless, making it thirstier and closer to clear and class. If you say it the British way, the tongue then taps its tip twice, like a simple signal on the counter to the barman, but in North America the r is a liquid – ironically, the tap then comes from the liquid, whereas in a bar it’s the other way round. But, again, lest this word’s bouquet make you a Bucket, remember that your claret will be poured not from a pitcher or a ewer but from a claret jug.