I remember when I first encounteried this word, I had a sense of what it meant, generally – a liking for something, a fondness, you know – but I didn’t know exactly where it came from. I was a kid! I looked at it and I saw pen and I saw enchant and chant, and I assumed it was said like “pen chant” and referred to a sort of little enchantment – if not a petit enchantment, then anyway pen as in penultimate. Or perhaps just as in the size of something that would fit in a pen, or be connected by a pen like a pen pal.
In fact, it was some time after I learned the French word for ‘lean’ – pencher – that I put two and two together and realized that, of course, penchant was the word for ‘leaning’. And because it’s a word that one sees from time to time but hears seldom, I didn’t notice any time before that that many people say it the French way – [pɑ̃ʃɑ̃] – and that the rest say it to rhyme with trenchant, and no one (other than youne me) seems to say it in any way reminiscent of an enchanting shanty from Penzance.
That may seem funny, given my, um, taste for words and their origins and pronunciation. But we all start from somewhere, and, again, given my, shall we say, liking for language, it was inevitable that I would eventually come wise to it. The only issue for me now is that it has acquired the permanent perfume of my early sense of it – as a charming little fondness, of the type one declares oneself to have when it is in fact a low-key all-consuming obsession that only reveals itself to be so if obstructed. This idea that it’s a leaning – as Oxford says, “a strong or habitual inclination; a tendency to do something” – has me a bit off-kilter. Yes, they also allow “a taste or liking for a person or thing,” but in that context it gains an air of imbalance, and, more to the point, of acknowledged imbalance. After all, any inclination can lead to a fall, and while having a penchant for someone is often the moment before you admit you’ve fallen for them, it still to me seems to have the air of charm like a pendant, you know?
Which is not unreasonable, given that French pencher comes from late Latin pendicare, which is from pendere, ‘hang’. Yes, that’s right: the same root as gives us pendant, pendulum, suspense, depend, and so on. So if you declare that you simply have a penchant for someone, while you are in fact watching the clock pendulum in suspense as you depend on them to text about whether they want to hang out with you, well… it all just falls into place.