At long last, we are able to meet with friends in person again – preferably at the patio of some restaurant, pub, bar, club, beer hall, coffee shop, or juke joint. I arranged to meet Maury at the back-lot beer garden of one of my local favourites, C’est What.
Maury had said that Narcissa would be joining us, but as we received our first pints of local microbrews, she had yet to arrive. “Perhaps she went to the Front Street patio,” I said.
“Quite possible,” Maury said. “I’ll text and see.” He typed in his phone to let her know she should come down Farquhars Lane to The Esplanade. It vibed in reply almost immediately. He looked at it and arched an eyebrow so high I thought he might sprain his face.
“Is she defiant?” I said.
“I think perhaps she accidentally went to the French place next door,” he said. He held up his phone to show me a message. It read, “Just as well. Too sheeshy here. Oh la la!”
“Too… sheeshy,” I said. “Do you think she’s pulling your leg?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” he said. “I’m starting to walk with a limp.”
“I admit,” I said, “the first time I saw chi-chi, spelled with a hyphen, I thought it was pronounced ‘chai-chai’. But I was young. And I didn’t hear it before reading it, but if I had, I might have thought it was spelled that way too.” I gestured at the phone.
“I suppose a person who learned Italian first might think it’s said ‘ki-ki’,” Maury observed. “And a Spanish speaker… well, a Spanish speaker would have a different meaning for chichi.” (If you don’t know what the Spanish term chichi means, I leave it to you to look it up, but if you don’t like vulgar anatomical references, you would do better not to.)
“I think,” I said, “the French origin of the term may have had that pronunciation too, from a root tchitch- referring to smallness.” I wasn’t going to pull out my phone on the spot to look it up – I’m not Daryl – but I got that from the Trésor de la langue française. Other sources, such as Oxford and Wiktionary, go with a likely derivation from chiche, in turn from Latin ciccum, referring to a trifle, bagatelle, or worthless little thing. (Neither is related to chic.) Both French and English have used the word in senses relating to frills, frippery, and showiness. But before I could continue the conversation, a loud pair of glasses and a glittery pair of lips entered the beer garden, followed by the rest of Narcissa.
“You found us,” Maury said. Obvious things often make good conversation starters.
Narcissa smooched Maury on each cheek and then said, “I’m glad this is the place, even though it’s not so scenic.”
“I take it chichi is not a positively toned word for you?” I said.
“Chichi as in the French word – what that other place probably wanted to be – is good with me,” she said, settling into a chair. “But I looked around and said, ‘Sheesh.’ Hence the wordplay.”
“Matching it, perhaps ironically, to the French usage,” Maury said. In French, chichi has a tone of excess, artifice, or vulgarity that is not always retained in the English.
Narcissa raised a finger and then pointed to Maury, indicating that he was spot on. “Just like another French thing that we in English use for approbation but the French use to express surprise, dismay, or sympathy. It was what I said when I thought that place was your favourite.”
Maury and I looked at each other and nodded and smiled with appreciation. Once again, Narcissa knew exactly what she was writing. Recalling the last time – long ago – I had dined at the French place, I shook my head slowly: “Oh là là!”
The chi chi I know refers to the sing-song accent of some Anglo-Indian women. Perhaps it’s a term that is now out of date.