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).

3 responses to “persiflage

  1. Tracy Andersen

    Ah ! So sesquipedalian ! But who pedals sesquis anymore? Hmmm, what, indeed, would a sesqui look like? A bicycle, or tricycle, overly done, complete with pedals for powering it along.

    Actually, as I understand it, sesquipedalian is overuse of big words. My failing, but I am out of practice, not having enough conversational partners to impress, and those with whom/who (I am really out of it, as I said) I do converse with, prefer the common vernacular, not my highfalutin’ talk.

    Oh, well, after my quarter of a century here, I will be soon shuffling’ on.

    On another note, I see Boink in the margin. Some thirty years ago, I worked in a new National Semiconductor clean room, and it was ostensibly to be a paperless fab. Well, it did generate more paper than ever. But a mistake on a computer note led to a “Doink” and it caught on, to doinking someone via email. It almost got out of hand, before it toned down to an occasional doink.

    Thank you for the wordplay.

    Tracy Y. Andersen

  2. I saw it used to describe a sprinkling of garlic, parsley and lemon zest at Bibendum, an excellent French-inpired restaurant in London.

  3. Pingback: What does "more flapper than sage; more purse than flag" mean? - English Vision

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