Word Matters Podcast

Hey, where is the 'n' in 'restaurateur'?

Word Matters, Episode 66

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First: someone who owns or runs a restaurant is called a restaurateur. What? How did that happen? Is 'restauranteur' a valid word? We'll get into it.

Then: why do people say 'meteoric rise' when meteors are famously things that fall?

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Ammon Shea: You don't see meteoric used in conjunction with too many other specific words in which it has changed its meaning.

Peter Sokolowski: In French, the word restaurer means the same thing in the sense to replace or repair, but it also means something else as a reflexive verb, it means to refresh or to gain nourishment through food, to eat.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, meteors fall. So why are there meteoric rises? And the pair of words, restaurant and restaurateur. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. An email from a listener called out the common, but counterintuitive phrase, meteoric rise. Meteors themselves are not known for their ascensions. Idiom does sometimes fly in the face of experience though; Ammon and Peter discuss.

Ammon Shea: An anonymous listener emailed recently that it had occurred to them that the often-used phrase meteoric rise, as it describes a politician's newfound popularity, or perhaps an actor's sudden fame is curious, to say the least. Meteors, as we know, are asteroids that enter the Earth's atmosphere and never actually rise, they always fall. The letter writer poses that perhaps it was originally meant as a bit of wit, which I have to say, I think is giving a little too much credit to the early users of meteoric rise. My guess, and Peter, you can back me up or disagree with me as you see fit, is that this is just another one of those kind of accidents that come along where we make a mistake and it catches on and we just go with it and it becomes part of the language.

Peter Sokolowski: I never gave it a thought. What I think also might be playing here is that there's another quality that meteors have and meteors fall, but they fall quickly. So there might be something like speedy as a kind of synonym.

Ammon Shea: That's a good point because there's more than one characteristic of a meteor. What I think as well though, is that this is not a new combination of words. We see meteoric rise going back to the mid early 19th century. So it is almost 200 years old. The earliest citation that I see is, "speaking of people who resembled demagogues, they may gain a casual, an adventitious projectility, but their meteoric rise will soon and inevitably be succeeded by a decadence which leaves them ever after in gloom and obscurity." Very poetic there. And that is from a newspaper called the Richmond Weekly Palladium in Richmond, Indiana. But this kind of mix up of words of this misuse of words in this specific way is not that unusual. There are other examples. One is a complaint we used to hear was that you cannot climb down a ladder.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right because climb...

Ammon Shea: It necessitates ascension.

Peter Sokolowski: If you are climbing, then you are going up. Absolutely.

Ammon Shea: It's like saying you are rising down the ladder, that is seen as a contradiction. And that is probably true in some sense, but we all decided that it is okay. And one of the things that I particularly enjoy about this is that when you see these things, which are in a very technical sense and a very narrowly defined sense, they are clearly wrong yet when you see that we have come to accept them, to insist otherwise starts to seem like it is just ridiculous to be correct. And my favorite one was that until two years ago, the Associated Press Style Book used to insist that you cannot collide with a parked car.

Peter Sokolowski: One car that is moving that hits a car that is not moving...

Ammon Shea: A collision, of necessity, involves two moving bodies. And so, it is physically impossible to collide with the parked car. Everybody uses it this way and that is why they finally changed it.

Peter Sokolowski: They would say that you had to use a verb like struck.

Ammon Shea: Exactly. You can't collide with a fire hydrant unless the fire hydrant is somehow itself moving.

Peter Sokolowski: I am just looking at its etymology from Latin. Co-, the collide means together, of course, and laedere means to injure by striking. So it does sort of mean that they're both doing the striking if the co- is the beginning of that word means it's something that is shared. Etymologically, I guess Latin does require them both to be moving, but that seems like an extreme case of etymological fallacy.

Ammon Shea: It does. And I think that something that is slightly different with meteoric rise, which is that it has just become a fixed phrase now.

Peter Sokolowski: And now it means "fast." Right?

Ammon Shea: Right. Because you do not see meteoric used in conjunction with too many other specific words in which it has changed its meaning, maybe meteoric speed or something like that. But you are entirely right, it is highlighting a perceived characteristic of meteors, which is speed.

Peter Sokolowski: And I am trying to think of its opposite number, its antonym. And I think of the word precipitous because...

Ammon Shea: Ah, sure!

Peter Sokolowski: Because precipitous means coming down and so precipitous fall, we also have evidence of the term precipitous rise used in headlines, used in serious writing. And in that case, it also simply means very steep, not so much fast, but steep. It has a slightly different connotation. And yet it similarly etymologically would lead you to think it could only go in one direction and yet the steepness could be in either way, for example, a steep increase in stock prices, that kind of thing.

Ammon Shea: Right. But I think it is also interesting, and precipitous is an excellent example of this, is that we often take words that are technical or scientific in nature and gently misuse them. And epicenter is another one...

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, epicenter. Yeah.

Ammon Shea: Right, where the original meaning of the word was the part of the Earth's surface directly above the focus of an earthquake.

Peter Sokolowski: An earthquake. And then wasn't it used for atomic bomb blasts?

Ammon Shea: And now the most common use by far is really just "center," but kind of like really the center.

Peter Sokolowski: The center of the center.

Ammon Shea: The center of the center. Bullseye! And so we now define it in that sentence. We do that not because we are trying to embrace error, or condone mistakes, but just because it has achieved sufficiently widespread use that that is now a meaning.

Peter Sokolowski: And the thing is, it is almost like the epi- serves as a kind of intensifier, it is more center than the center. And that reminds me of the use of the word penultimate, which sometimes people will use the same way. Penultimate is supposed to mean the second to last, but it's fairly commonly heard to mean the best or the very best of the best.

Ammon Shea: The ne plus ultra of ultimate, which is one of the things that people thought explained the use of irregardless was that ir- was thought to have occurred as an intensifier.

Peter Sokolowski: It is like the word utmost. Utmost adds that syllable to the word most and it means the more most. And so we have this idea in our collective minds that that added syllable adds that emphasis, adds that intensity, adds that structure to the word whereas etymologically often they actually sort of undermine that exact conclusion.

Ammon Shea: When you look at least at English, comparative forms and superlative forms, they tend to come at the end of the word, not the beginning of the word.

Peter Sokolowski: Like less.

Ammon Shea: Right. Lesser, greatest. It's not est-great. It's not in-great, but for some reason, you are right. We do think of placing this prefix, this semantic heft that the word did not previously have.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And that is the other thing that maybe you are exactly right. Heft, a lack of familiarity means that it must be more formal or more technical in some way. And so it is just an easy way to make language seem more specific when actually of course you might be misusing the term according to traditional use and the dictionary definition for a lot of these. Epicenter is a good example, especially because during the pandemic, it was a term that was used constantly in the news. And we had already of course included that sense in the dictionary, but only fairly recently.

Ammon Shea: So this is a very simple thing that if you find that you have a word that you always misuse and we all have these, we all suddenly realize at some point later in life that we have been embarrassing ourselves for the last couple of decades. The very simple way to get around this, which is just convince millions, maybe tens of millions of other people to start using it that way. And then before you know it, it'll be defined in our dictionary.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We will be right back with a story of restaurant and restaurateur. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I am Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I am Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the N E P M podcast hub@nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: The pair restaurant and restaurateur are close relations that crossed the English channel from French. In its traditional form, the latter one lacks the N that the former has, which is curious. Peter has an explanation.

Peter Sokolowski: One of my fascinations is the parallel construction of English. The fact that we have so many words that come from, say, old English that have synonyms that might have roots in Latin, and that they're used slightly differently. They have slightly different registers, but English seems to need both of them. And that also goes, I think, for parts of words and people don't often think of that. So for example, we have the English suffix ness N E S S, that makes a noun out of something. So we say scarceness or absurdness, but we also have the Latin version of that, which is I T Y in English, the way we normally spell it. So we have absurdity and scarcity. So in the case of these words, I would understand scarceness, maybe scarcity is more common. I certainly would understand absurdity, but absurdness, I might use in a different construction. It is just interesting that English is flexible enough to bend without breaking when we have these kinds of word parts. This made me think of another set of suffixes that are parallel that come from them two different sources. That mean the same thing, or at least technically mean the same thing. I am thinking of the I N G ending in the present participle of most English verbs, like going or seeing. And those forms often become nouns, which we sometimes call gerunds. But the French form of that present participle is where we get words that end in A N T. And when you think about those words, and I will give you a few examples, we know them as nouns, but it is kind of fun to think of them as verbs, which is where they started. So think of a word like occupant, that meant occupying, one that is occupying.

Emily Brewster: Hmm!

Peter Sokolowski: Or savant, which is knowing, literally it means knowing. Now we think of it as one who knows. There is a million of these. Tenant is one of these and in French tenant, tenir means to hold. So the person holding a word like remnant, which means remaining.

Emily Brewster: Interesting.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, so we have these A N T endings that are parallel to the I N G endings. And if you can sort of squint and see the verb through them, you can sort of also see where they come from. That is to say what verb was borrowed that has become a noun. And one of the more interesting ones that follows this pattern is the word restaurant. So A N T again, and that means it comes from a French verb in its present participle. So when I see the word restaurant, if you click over to thinking in French, because this word is spelled the same way, restaurant. In French, it means restoring. And in French, the word restaurer means the same thing in the sense to sort of replace or repair. But it also means something else as a reflexive verb, it means to refresh or to gain nourishment through food, to eat.

Emily Brewster: It says something about the French attitude towards restaurants, for sure.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, exactly. So this term originally was a place to restore. It was a place where you go to restore and there were actually competing forms. There was restaurant, restaurant and there was also restaurateur, which was the noun form. In other words, restorer, one that restores.

Emily Brewster: Would they both refer to the place?

Peter Sokolowski: And they both referred to the place. So the restaurant which began as a verb, became a noun, restaurant. And then they would also say, it is a restaurateur. It is a place go to be restored. In other words, one that restores. You think of a word like importer or caterer, that kind of thing. So a restorer, one that restores, is just a place to go to eat. And that's where this term came from. Our modern idea of a restaurant is fairly recent, fairly new. It goes back to the 18th century. It is not an ancient, ancient term, but that idea of a place to go to get food comes from the use of these two words. And here is the problem in English, is that they entered English together and settled in two different places because we do to this day, refer to the place you go to as a restaurant, a business where you can buy and eat a meal. But the essential meaning of one who restores, the other form, the restorer, restaurateur entered English as well but with the different meaning. That is to say with the meaning ultimately of the owner or proprietor of a restaurant. The interesting thing is that this happened in the 20th century. Even in Webster's Third, 1961, if you looked up the word restaurateur, one of the definitions was "restaurant."

Emily Brewster: Wow.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it was used in English this way, but we have sort of lost it. And partly I think, I am fascinated by this concept, we lose things when they are completely replaced, when they are eclipsed totally. And so that was a word that was totally eclipsed by its parallel form. Restaurant became the dominant one. And so restaurateur like caterer, a place where one goes to be restored, just simply dropped from English.

Emily Brewster: I wonder if also the role of the restaurateur in the society became elevated in some way or more pronounced. And so the necessity of having a particular word to refer to that person to refer to the proprietor meant that that word just became more specialized. It became its narrower meaning or one of its meanings became more ossified. That it just became the more stable and dominant and now only meaning.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, it makes sense. And so this is why in English, restaurateur without an N is still the correct spelling. And it's a commonly seen misspelling in fact, because we want to put that N in there, we figure that the person who runs a restaurant must be a restauranteur. But in fact, the proper form is restaurateur.

Emily Brewster: Well, proper.

Peter Sokolowski: We do give a variant spelling.

Ammon Shea: Getting a little judgmental there.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: That is right. In our definition, it says, or the head word is restaurateur without the N as you say, but we provide the variant or less commonly restauranteur. And we don't actually say that it is disfavored as a variant.

Peter Sokolowski: Or stigmatized. And it is the kind of thing that could change over time clearly because of the overwhelming dominance of one of these words.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: And the influence of the gravitational pull it will have. It is the kind of trap that the language has set that makes English so difficult. Why do we have these two competing forms? The fact is they were parallel forms at one time and now they're competing forms. And now we have one that we have decided is much more common than the other.

Emily Brewster: Right. And adding an N in for an English speaker who has no familiarity with French, which would be most English speakers...

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: Would make perfect sense.

Peter Sokolowski: It is phonetically...

Emily Brewster: That the word restauranteur would be the term to pair restaurant.

Peter Sokolowski: Yep.

Emily Brewster: A restaurant is run by a restauranteur.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Ammon Shea: I know we are all descriptivists here and it is kind of required, but it warms the cockles in my heart to know that Peter, you have some usages that you might look upon askance.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, it is one of those things I would notice, let's put it that way. But part of it is that when you trip over this and you learn it, then that is one of those things. That is what makes, I think, a lot of the peeves that people have such a passionate part of their language baggage, their language personality, because they had to go through the work of learning it. And so they're going to teach it to everyone else. In this case, though, restaurateur is found in The New York Times fairly frequently and everywhere, very infrequently. Do we just say the owner, or we might refer...

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: To the boss or the cook or the chef? Restaurateur, there is a specialized nature to it, which is what you were getting at, which is that it has this highly technical ring to it. But if you are not using it that way, if you are just kind of referring to the person who is the owner, I think often we would use a different word.

Emily Brewster: Right? Well, I think also nowadays there is a greater interest in the chef owner, the chef operator of a restaurant. The person who actually owns it is less important culturally than the person who is actually there and responsible for what makes it onto the plate.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. And the personality of the place is from the people who are there. That is a very good point, but it is just one of those interesting things to see in English history, these words that were borrowed from French after the Renaissance in the 16 and 1700s and since. They tend to keep their French spellings and they tend to keep a lot of these weird French conventions such as this one.

Emily Brewster: And that has to do with the fact that French was this kind of elevated language.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: It had a level of respect and also disdain by English speakers. There is this complicated relationship with all things French.

Peter Sokolowski: I think that that is an interesting point and something that I have been thinking about lately, which is why is it that French carries this prestige to English speakers specifically, because if you master Dutch or if you master Brazilian Portuguese, you have done just the same amount of cultural work. And yet with French and its relationship to English, there is this question of fanciness and prestige. And I think it is deep. I think it runs very, very deep. And I think it has to do with the Norman Conquest of course, and the fact that these terms for laws and government came from the Norman conquerors, but then the terms for hierarchies did too. All the ranks of the military: private, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, major, those are all French words. All the words for the aristocracy: squire, baron, duke, marquis. Those are all French, except for the word earl, which was an Old English term. But earl, the equivalent was count in French. So we still sort of understand it. And so those ideas of authority, those ideas of hierarchy, they were imposed upon us by the French rulers for centuries. And so there is this elevated sense... Of course there is also something else which is just French cuisine, French couture, these other more modern ideas. But I think that they have been added to these earlier ideas of hierarchy. That is just a theory I have, but I think it runs deep. And it goes to those what I call the Ivanhoe examples of things like the names of animals in the Barnyard, as opposed to the food that is prepared. A pig is English, but pork is French, a cow is English, but beef is French. There is a whole sequence of words like that, that show embedded in the language, a class or a caste system, that one group of people was serving another. I think it is very deep. It is not just because the French culture is peculiar or it is nearby geographically. It is those things too but I think it is the accumulation of all of these elements and especially the length of time, the thousand years that it has been going on.

Emily Brewster: Right. I think that makes a lot of sense. In so many cases, the French borrowing that came in the wake of the Norman conquest came to refer to the fancier version of whatever, the word mansion. It originally could refer to any kind of a dwelling at all.

Peter Sokolowski: Basic words like brotherhood and fraternity, they mean the same thing. And yet something is a little bit... Different usage that we would have. And brotherhood, we might take being a little bit more earthy, a little bit more grounded and fraternity could be something elevated or professional or even university-oriented, which again is the same kind of hierarchy. So it is just a theory I have, but I think that it runs deep for all of those reasons. Restaurant is a great example, that words for cuisine, including the word cuisine itself, owe themselves to this period of French borrowings after the Renaissance.

Emily Brewster: I do love this idea that restaurant has, at its etymological core, this idea of restoration. That is really nice.

Peter Sokolowski: It is an elegant way of thinking about eating.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcast or email us at word matters@m-w.com. You can also visit us @nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I am Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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