Daily Archives: April 11, 2010


Here’s a word that immediately communicates two things (to those who understand it): the discourse referred to is light, and the person speaking or writing is erudite.

Persiflage refers to the sort of light banter one just breezes through, breezy talk to shoot the breeze, mere raillery: more flapper than sage; more purse than flag; a trifle, a siffle, mere piffle. To speak in this way is to persiflate, and indeed one may just as well purse one’s lips and inflate a balloon (you know how to persiflate, don’t you? you just put your lips and tongue together and blow smoke): it is flattery or flatulence, but no divine afflatus. It is prating parsley on the plate of locution (not so unlike the decorative starlets the Italians call prezzemolina, which means “parsley”). It is designed as prophylaxis against a slip, a gaffe, a slur – although it may mask a jape or a sly undercut.

And the breeze comes etymologically to it: it comes from French, per (from Latin for “through”) plus siffler “whistle” (which traces back to the same Latin root that gives us sibilant, a phonological term that describes sounds such as [s]). Thus, it is a high-toned means of blowing discourse away like dust. “Meretricious persiflage,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in Women in Love. “Infidelity and confections and persiflage,” wrote Walt Whitman in the preface to Leaves of Grass. “Smooth and shallow persiflage,” wrote Charles Kingsley in Hypatia. “This vertiginous persiflage, this gyrostatic amphigouri,” wrote Brooks Atkinson in a New York Times review of the 1920 play Where’s Your Husband? “Is this a time for airy persiflage?” wrote W.S. Gilbert in The Mikado.

Well, and perhaps it is a time for airy persiflage. Does not everyone, once in a while, want to pass the time flapping the gums, one hand waving lightly through the air, the other perhaps sustaining a martini? One may even all the while endeavour to sound frighteningly erudite. “Oh, do come join us for some syllabub, a pousse-café, a canapé, and a peck of persiflage.”

Thanks to Marie-Lynn Hammond for suggesting persiflage (quite some time ago).

Each and every

A colleague asked about a sentence similar to this one:

The aim is for each waffle and every pancake to taste as though they were made out of dreams.

The colleague at first wanted to change “they were” to “it was” but then had doubts: there’s an and, so it’s a compound subject and therefore plural, right?

Actually, no. Continue reading

I must disagree with whoever wrote that

Consider the case of a sentence such as the following:

I must agree with whomever wrote this.

Is that correct?

Nope. Continue reading

What’s the referent?

A colleague asked about a sentence similar to the following:

Implementing personnel policies is the only real delegation left to make, which requires involvement at all executive levels.

Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that the “which” clause is a nonrestrictive clause – i.e., that the comma belongs there (otherwise, take out the comma, replace which with that, and you have a coherent sentence – but one that implies that there may also be tasks left to undertake that don’t require involvement at all executive levels). The problem, then, is that it’s not clear what the which refers to. Continue reading