pretzel

This word makes me think of the Ontario Science Centre.

Is the Ontario Science Centre somehow pretzel-like? Nope. Nor do they make or sell pretzels there as far as I know (perhaps they have them in the cafeteria.) No, I think of it because my wife twisted herself into a pretzel there.

I don’t mean she got bent out of shape metaphorically, nor that she got confused. No, there was an exhibit about, um, circus things, as I recall, and they had a little cube that people could see if they could fit themselves into from the side (not the top!). Each side of it was about the length of an adult’s leg from heel to knee: about a half a metre, I guess.

My wife is very flexible.

Yes, she fit in easily. In spite of the fact that she’s five-foot-six. She fit into a place so small I would have been praying for mercy if I’d even tried to be in it (or been forced into it). A leg, her torso, her head, arms folded, the other leg. No prob. Into a space the size of one of those little cubes you set snacks on in your living room. Just twisted into a pretzel.

Which, by the way, is the most common phrase for the word pretzel. Although pretzels aren’t really the absolute twistiest things anyone has ever seen (indeed, the word pretzel is rather twistier in a way, and almost looks like an inventory of the body parts Aina slipped into that box), they’re twistier than the average piece of bread.

Do you think of pretzels as bread? This probably depends rather much on your individual experience. They’re made with flour and so on, sure, but the ones I grew up with were crunchy. Crunchy little things that stick in your molars after you chew on them. When you bite into them, they make a cracking sound that’s rather similar to the sound of the word pretzel. They’re very salty and go great with beer. They’re twisted together, sure (though some of them are straight sticks – “salty” is a more essential characteristic of pretzels than “twisted” in my experience), but they’re not soft like bread – or like my wife.

So, when in 1983 I saw David Brenner’s book Soft Pretzels with Mustard, I thought, “What?” Soft and pretzels did not go together in my world. And where do you put the mustard on those little things?

Obviously I had not yet been to New York, where sidewalk vendors sell nice, big, soft pretzels that you can – and should – squeeze mustard on. (I’ve enjoyed them many times since.) Real bread, covered with big crystals of salt. As though those little things I had always eaten had been click-dragged bigger – and gotten softer in the process.

Did I say big? Aw, heck, you can still hold those things in your hands. One person can easily eat one. Today I had part of a pretzel that would be rather too much for one person – it was a big, soft, lovely thing, and it had a diameter of, um, well, not a half a metre, but more than a foot.

Of course more than a foot. Two arms! Every pretzel has two arms, folded together. (Admittedly, they look to me a bit more like Aina when she puts her legs behind her head, but most people can’t pretzel themselves that way.) The origin of the word pretzel is somewhat disputed, but it’s commonly thought that it likely comes from a reference to arms: Latin bracchium, by way of modified and diminutive versions, such as bracellus. A competing origin – though without any support other than a medieval assertion – is pretiola, “little rewards.” But since the English word comes from the German, and the German starts (and has always started) with /b/, that source /p/ would have had to become a /b/ and then go back to /p/ – not impossible, though it would be a pretzel-like round-and-back. Otherwise, it would just be a matter of the /b/ becoming a /p/, which is sort of like how the soft pretzels became hard ones by the time they got to Alberta (and many other places).

And why crossed arms? The heart-warming story is that they are in emulation of a child’s prayer pose (the “little rewards” were for saying their prayers). It’s pretty reasonable to imagine that they were used overtly with that in mind for a long time – and, by some people, still are. Was that where they originally came from? Perhaps. There is possible evidence of older breads with crossed-arm (and other twisted) shapes. But, though the opening /pr/ shared with prayer is just a coincidence, their history for the past several centuries starts with prayers. And with fasting.

Fasting? Yup. They’re food for Lent. You may associate them with beer and hot dogs and things like that (or, on the other hand, with “low-fat snack food,” which makes them seem more penitential), but they gained their great popularity during Lent. After all, they’re made with just water and flour – and salt and perhaps some sugar. No eggs, no lard, no dairy.

Not that beer has any of those in it, of course…

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