maroon

This word, I must confess, has a particular inescapable tone for me, given it by Bugs Bunny, who, laughing derisively at one nemesis or another, said “What a maroon!”

Now, we may reasonably conclude that this was a mutation of moron, but for me, a certain shade of mauve has been forever stained with the tarnish of foolishness. As has the fact of being stranded on an island.

To make matters worse, at a more recent point (perhaps a decade and a half ago), reading through a cookbook written by a guy with mob connections who included anecdotes along with his recipes, I found that a favourite expletive among the Italian-American circle of the author was marrone.

So, great. Now not just dumb, but venal, violent, et cetera.

Well you may wonder why I would let such chestnuts flavour a word so strongly. But with this word, one simply can’t escape the flavour of chestnuts. After all, marrone and French marron mean “chestnut,” and it is from them that we get the word for the colour. Yes, yes, I know, chestnuts are a rich brown, not what we would normally call maroon in colour – maroon is, as the OED puts it, more like claret (red Bordeaux), which is to say a deeper, richer red than Burgundy. It can also be brownish-crimson, and that would seem to have been its path from nuts to wine. Meanwhile, through the same connection, it also names a kind of firework that makes a loud bang – because a chestnut tossed on a fire will do the same once it’s heated up enough.

But how does it get from nuts to desert islands? Well, it doesn’t quite. It’s more like being on the island and going nuts. That is to say, the word for the stranded person (which in turn became the verb for stranding) started out as a different word and, through modifications, came to look like the word for the chestnut.

That’s right, no crimson tales of swashbuckling here. Actually, the first maroons were not people left behind or stranded by a storm; rather, they were people who wanted to get away. Slaves. Slaves in the West Indies, specifically. To get away from working on plantations, they escaped to inhospitable regions – not desert islands but rather the mountainous interiors of the islands they were already on (and of Suriname). From this, they got the name cimarróns, from Spanish cima “peak, summit” (compare Spanish cimarra “wild place”). And subsequently, from the idea of isolation and exile, came the verb meaning “leave ashore on a desolate island or coast” (Désolé? Désolé, monsieur, nous allons vous quitter.)

So there you have it. Both sides do have the whiff of gunpowder – the slave rebellions and pirates on one side, and the fireworks on the other side – and the crimson to boot. And actually the influence is mutual: cimarrón may have been clipped to be like marron, but it appears that the island sense was first to move to maroon and the chestnut followed after.

There aren’t too many connections between the sea and trees, certainly; I’m put in mind of Tom Lewis’s song “Marching Inland,” which starts as follows:

Lord Nelson knew the perfect way to cure your “mal-de-mer,”
So if you pay attention, his secret I will share,
To any sea-sick sailor he’d give this advice for free:
“If you’re feeling sea-sick, sit underneath a tree!”

Maroon does have a mer sound at the start, too – as in la marée haute, high tide. And with the nautical connection, how could it escape getting the oon ending? Army and navy, they have their poltroons, dragoons, saloons, typhoons, lagoons… not that oon only shows up in that mileu, of course; it also shows up, for instance, in cartoon. And in cartoons.

Thanks to Elaine Freedman for suggesting maroon.

One response to “maroon

  1. I’ve alwasy wanted to go to Jamaica, in part because of fascination with Maroons. Russell Banks wrote great book set in Maroon country of Jamaica, title escapes me at present.

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