“It’s… JEN-TACULAR!” You drop your fork on your bacon and eggs and look up at the TV. There, good enough to eat, are Aniston, Lawrence, Lopez, and Garner. Well! This is a good way to start the day. Breakfast TV indeed! Positively jentacular.
Of course, such a scene might be most openly desirable to that sort of gent who is attracted to copious quantities of bacon and eggs. Well, yeah, and the Jennifers, too. But come on. We’re talking about breakfast here.
You didn’t know? Jentacular means ‘of, or relating to, breakfast’. It’s from Latin jentaculum ‘breakfast’, which in turn is derived from jentare, ‘eat breakfast’ (or, for the old-schoolers, ‘break fast’, since breakfast is from break fast, i.e., end the overnight fasting – that thing where you don’t eat because you’re asleep). Of course, in classical Latin, it’s IENTARE; in modern writing, we distinguish consonant i from vowel i by using the extended version of the letter, j, for the former, just as we distinguish the vowel form of v from the consonant form of v by writing the cursive form, u, for the former. We’ve made them official different letters, and they sound much more different in English. But in Latin jentare (or ientare, or IENTARE since half-uncials didn’t exist way back then) was pronounced “yen-ta-reh.”
Quite a difference between a yenta and a Jen, though, isn’t there? As much of a difference as there is between breakfast and breakfast. In some places, breakfast may be fish and soup; in others, it may be sugary processed grains soaked in low-fat milk (because somehow lots of sugar and little fat is better than little sugar and lots of fat?); in others (looking at you, England – please invite me over), it may be bacon, eggs, beans, and fried tomatoes – not gentle, but gentile. Breakfast changes over place and time.
And so does Jen, or rather Jenny. We know that Jenny is not new as a nickname in English; we see it in various usages even in the time of Shakespeare. But somehow in The Doctor’s Dilemma, written by George Bernard Shaw in 1906, there is this:
MRS. DUBEDAT. My name is Jennifer.
RIDGEON. A strange name.
MRS. DUBEDAT. Not in Cornwall. I am Cornish. It’s only what you call Guinevere.
How do we reconcile this? Is Dr. Ridgeon oddly onomastically naïve? No. In the time of Shakespeare and for centuries after, Jenny was short for Janet or, occasionally, Jane. If you’re wondering how Janet came to be Jenny, you may as well move on to how Richard became Dick, Edward became Ned and Ted, Robert became Bob, John became Jack, and Margaret became Peg. After those, Jenny seems quite obvious for Janet, doesn’t it?
But more obvious for Jennifer. Which is indeed from the same root at Guinevere, which means, roughly, ‘fair and soft’. OK, fair enough, once Jennifer is popular it naturally claims Jenny and Jen. How did Jennifer become such a popular name that Jen is practically the default name for North American females now? I guess a lot of people liked it… starting with those who saw The Doctor’s Dilemma, which – in spite of being one of those preachy, wordy Shavian thinkdramas (which are nonetheless great to act in) – was quite popular. I’m sure the scripted extreme attractiveness of Jennifer Dubedat (and thus of the actresses who played her, starting with Lillah McCarthy) didn’t hurt.
But. That’s a lot to digest before breakfast. I should go more gentle on the gut in what is, for many of my readers who open this first thing in the morning, still an antejentacular hour. I suggest something to settle the stomach. Sparkling wine, perhaps? Ah, that would be jentacular.