Daily Archives: September 25, 2009


“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“European who?”

“European in the pecan.”


“I don’t get it.”

So, now: why didn’t he – or she – get it?

Could be that there are several ways to say pecan. Since it comes from Mississippi Valley French pacane, which in turn comes from Illinois pakáni (Illinois was an Algonquian language, i.e., Native American), the rather pretentious-sounding “p’cahn” pronunciation is closest to the origin. The similar version with [æ] before the [n] is also in the ballpark. But if you happen to look at this word with Anglophone eyes, well, it does look like it should be said “pee-can.”

Now, admittedly, “pee-can” doesn’t really sound pretty, and that by itself could motivate a person to prefer “p’cahn” (just as similar kinds of echoes have driven pronunciation mutations for harassment and Uranus). But “p’cahn” or “p’can” sounds rather like a chicken pickin’ in the coop, no?

Still and all, it is a foody kind of word. It has a cryptic hint of canapé in its form, but look at the shapes of the p and c for clues to its most common collocation: pie. It’s also often preceded by butter and associated with praline. It’s a very popular nut for a nut that’s not a nut… Technically, it’s a drupe, just as cherries are. (I think I’ll avoid puns on nuts and drupe around pecan, though.) But, then, technically, strawberries aren’t berries and bananas are. Botany really makes a mess of common semantics.

But to return to the original question, person B above actually didn’t get it because there’s nothing European in a pecan. They’re indigenous to the Americas, in particular to parts of Mexico and to the southern and southeastern parts of the US, and up to Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. In fact, the pecan is the state tree of Texas. And no doubt their schools teach that you find the area of a circle using pecan pi.


Maury, Philippe, and I, in our student days, had a custom of taking tea with the lovely Liza. I showed up every Saturday, and every Saturday Philippe was also there. Only every second Saturday did Maury show up. One such Saturday, as we were sitting sipping tea while Liza had gone to the kitchen to fetch some cookies, I asked Maury, “Why is it that you only come every other Saturday?”

“What do you mean?” he said. “We all do. Don’t we?”

“Well, Philippe and I are here every Saturday.”

“Yes,” said Philippe, “and why is it that you lads don’t show on Wednesdays?”

I turned to Philippe, an exclamation mark hanging over my head. “Wot! You come twice a week?”

“Well, certainly,” Philippe said with a little shrug. “It’s what she said we were to do. Don’t you remember?”

“What I remember,” said Maury, clinking his teacup onto the saucer, “is that she said, ‘Come biweekly.'”

“Well, yes,” I said. “Come by weekly.”

“But certainly it was ‘come biweekly,'” Philippe affirmed, making that palms-up “obviously” gesture. “And that’s what I’ve been doing.”

I looked from one to the other, nonplussed. Just then, the cute and acute Liza reemerged bearing shortbreads. “When you told us to come biweekly,” I asked her, “what did you mean?”

The right corner of her mouth canted up; her left eyebrow arched. She swept her eyes over us, alighting them last on Philippe.

“Just what you heard,” she replied. “Cookie?”

Since then, I have come to understand how semantics can lead to some antics. But there are few semantics more antic than those of this word. It’s not a contronym (like cleave and cleave), true, but darn close. We know from the Latin-derived bi that there are two of something involved, and the Anglo-Saxon weekly (from words for “week” and “like”) sets the point of reference, but beyond that it’s like not knowing the difference between a square and a square root (which, if you’re a negative one, can become a real – or imaginary – problem). Clearly this affixation is a match made in heck.

We can avoid it with various circumlocutions, of course. There are even other words, arguably clearer: fortnightly (but in Canada we seem not to have fortnights, unless it means sleeping out in your childhood play structure) and semiweekly (which, however, to my eyes risks the same misunderstandings).

But the ambiguity does make it useful for play, as do its other properties. It has two doubles in it – a double-u and a double e – and the rotating forks at the end (opening rightward on k and upward on y) may be imagined as relating to a shift of perspective. And of course there are the various puns that can be made on it.

Which takes me back to the tea. Maury and I were feeling like we’d been had, but, more importantly, that we’d been had less often than Philippe. For tea, I mean.

I remembered the axiom that fortune favours the bold. “Well, then,” I said, seeing if I could outflank my smooth friend, “what say we do dinner on Fridays? I’ll buy weekly.”

“I’d gladly treat you Thursdays and Sundays,” Philippe riposted. “Biweekly.”

Maury, ever the impecunious schlimazel, knew he could not compete. He rose, took his coat, said “Bye” weakly, and left.