croissant

Croissants have been with us a long time, of course – their modern form was invented around the middle of the 19th century, though not without forerunners. (They were not invented by Viennese bakers commissioned to create them in commemoration of their having foiled a Moorish attempt at tunneling into the city during a siege; that’s a popular myth, but it is pure myth.) But my recollection is that they had a bit of a surge in the early 1980s, at least in Alberta, when some restaurants started serving not simple croissants but full sandwiches made with them. (The Oxford Companion to Food supports this notion, noting that in the late 1970s such sandwiches came into vogue in France in response to the invading hamburger; it would have taken a few years for the trend to reach Banff.)

The reason I remember the time with some clarity is that in my last year of high school, I wished to conduct a science experiment testing reaction times after intake of successive amounts of alcohol (inspired by an episode of WKRP). My subject, Dave Breisch, a good friend more than a decade older than I, a fellow who was never without his black leather jacket and always wore his hair in a ducktail, recommended one local establishment not simply for the relative ease of performing the test there but for the food – they had great croissants. Which he explained were not just the rolls but full sandwiches made with them. And which he pronounced “croy-sants.”

Well, how the heck do you pronounce this word if you’re an anglophone, anyway? The French way is just not available, not even substituting an English-style /r/: we don’t have /rw/ together in a syllable onset in our phonemic repertoire. (For proof, say Rwanda or ask anyone else to. Odds are very good they’ll add an extra syllable: /ru wan da/.) But, on the other hand, “croy-sant” just sounds, well, you know, uh, déclassé. We may do English-style spelling pronunciations of some loan words, but we all know enough about French to know that’s a bit too distorted. So, if we don’t wish to switch for one word into French phonemics, we will tend to just assimilate the /r/ into the /w/ and say /kwa/ instead of /krwa/. Some people, I believe, merge in the other direction and say /kra/ – especially in that synthetic macaronic word croissandwich, which can get to sound a bit like “crust sandwich” said sloppily.

Ah, crust… There’s a decent crispy taste of crust in croissant, isn’t there? Slightly less, true, if you say it more the French way, with a nasalized vowel followed by a glottal stop rather than the /nt/.

And of course the written form starts with the iconic c. It gets even better than that, though: say it the French way and the mouth goes from puckered to open, a fast dilation that matches the quick crescendo from voiceless to full voice. What has this to do with croissant? Why, croissant means “growing” (even in modern French it’s the present participle of croître “grow”). The source is Latin crescentem, also the source for crescendo and, of course, crescent. And how is a croissant or crescent growing? Is it because a croissant is thick in the middle and tapered at the end? Well, not per se, no. It’s because when the moon is waxing to full, that’s the shape you see. (Originally a waning moon was decrescent, but that’s now excrescent.) And crescent is so much nicer to say than convexo-concave, isn’t it? Which reminds me that the shape of a crescent is the same sort of shape as a cross-section of lenses for hyperopia (farsightedness) – that is to say, glasses one needs for reading.

Which are, of course, different from the glasses one needs for drinking. Which takes me back to Dave Breisch. I had a nice reaction timer ordered in by the school. We went to the pub (actually a hotel bar) and ate those nice croissants, too. But before we did, we ran four drinks through Dave and did the tests. And what I found was what was actually known generally to be the case: reaction times get faster at first (after a drink or so, depending on tolerance), as the person calms down and focuses… and then, with more drinks, the times rapidly get worse. The graph is itself a crescent shape, as the times are first decrescent and then crescent.

You may have noticed the irony of a leather-jacket-and-ducktail-wearing guy talking about how good the croissants were. I’m put in mind of a MAD Magazine parody of the TV show Simon & Simon, in which Rick (the country-style brother) asks A.J. (the citified brother) what he’s having for breakfast. “Espresso… and a croissant,” A.J. says. Rick replies that he doesn’t go for that fancy stuff, and he’ll just have a small cup of strong black coffee and a roll. And, yes, Dave was much more a Rick-style person. But I’m sure my tough-guy greaser-type friend who made a career as a nurse, and who died unexpectedly about a year and a half ago, would appreciate the fitting irony of my dedicating today’s word tasting note to his memory.

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