Daily Archives: November 26, 2009


What do you say to a Brazilian when you give her cosmetics for her birthday?

Parabens prá você!

OK, I’ll explain that one. Parabens, in English, are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid (whence their name); you will see various of them – such as methylparaben and propylparaben – in the listed ingredients in cosmetics, shampoos, shaving gels, moisturizers, and toothpaste. You may, if you’re a label reader, recognize the words.

But how does parabens taste to you? Do the p and b and maybe the n somehow have a calming, soothing effect – rather like the natural-sounding paba once so popular in such things as sunscreen (and short for para-aminobenzoic acid)? Or do you think of chemicals such as propane and paraffin and benzene? Does it seem, perhaps, like a drag parachute you pop out of your Mercedes Benz to slow down quickly? Do you get an echo of parables, or pure beans, or problems? Taste it and see.

No, no, don’t drink your shampoo! And, yes, why should we talk of taste when it’s a word for a class of chemicals? Well, why not? All words have tastes, and anyway, parabens are also used as food additives. Wot, really? Well, sure, why not – some of them occur naturally in plants; for instance, methylparaben is found in blueberries. (Remember: even naturally occurring things are chemicals.)

And what do parabens do? They’re preservatives – they have anti-microbial properties. There has been some suggestion that they may affect breast cancer and may perhaps weakly mimic estrogen, but that remains, as they say in the sciences, controversial.

OK, but why did I bring Brazil into this? Well, in Portuguese, parabéns means “congratulations,” but is more of an all-purpose word: it can be used where anglophones might say That’s great, Well done, or Happy birthday. In fact, the words they sing to the Happy Birthday song in Brazil are as follows:

Parabéns pra você,
Nesta data querida,
Muitas felicidades,
Muitos anos de vida!

And why do they say “congratulations” on the notice of your advancing age? Perhaps because you’re well preserved.


I have this image of Pierre Abélard, as he brought Héloïse to the convent of Argenteuil, singing to her the Willy Dixon song that Led Zeppelin did on their first album: “I can’t quit you, babe, so I’m gonna put you down for a while…” But while he didn’t quit her, he did requit her, and though his was not an unrequited love, it was in the end a nun-requited love – though by that time it was through the prophylaxis of French letters. He had made his quietus with a bare body; he was not acquitted; for a time he was quieted, but he would not quit.

Quiet, quit, acquit, requit, requite? Is that quite so? And in a tale of iniquity and inequity, which if any of them may apply? Quiet, please: let us begin. In fact, let us take our quietus from classical Latin: it meant what we mean by quiet, noun. From it came, in the 4th to 6th centuries (AD), quietare, which meant “become quiet” and then “make quiet” and, by the 11th century in England, “discharge” – not a gun, a debt. And did this lead to quit? Quite. Yes, and quite too. In fact, quit formerly had a long vowel and was a homophone of quite, which is fair enough, as quite meant in the first place “thoroughly complete” (as in paid in full, for instance) and quit meant “pay, redress, etc.” From that it came also to mean “set free” and “leave.” (Similar progressions of sense occurred in French with their version of the word.)

And from this came, too, acquit (from Latin ad + quitare) – meaning “settle or discharge a debt” and now a more legal sense of the same – and the twins requit (now not really used, but seen in older literature) and requite. And requite means “repay” or “make return of.” But it, too, is seldom used as is; add the past participle ed suffix to make an adjective, and then the negating prefix un to that adjective, however, and you have a much better-known form.

And what is unrequited? Say it together: love. So what, now, do people say is requited? Love, mainly. It’s not the only thing, but thanks to such as Wordsworth – who wrote of “Being crazed in brain By unrequited love” – this word’s worth is less in the principle and more in the interest it has gained from followers of Aphrodite, in spite of its mercenary tones.

There is something about saying this word, too, that makes me think of quenching thirst, perhaps the vaguely drinking-like action of the tongue it uses. You may blow two kisses in saying it, too: a small one with the /r/, which we typically say with some rounding of the lips, and a bigger one with the /kw/. Then the tip of the tongue takes a trip of but two steps, not the three Nabokov discerns in Lolita, and rests. And if your kisses to the air are returned, or your letters Frenched – perhaps catching you after edit but before you are done your query – you may find yourself not only requited but quite red.

Thank you to Roberto De Vido for suggesting today’s word.