Daily Archives: January 24, 2012

espadrille

This seems like a nice, frilly word. It strikes me as somehow redolent of the a Southern Belle, standing under the espalier at the cotillion ready to dance a quadrille in her best gown and high-heeled shoes. Or perhaps she is gazing at some dashing Spaniard doing fencing drills con capa y espada (with cape and sword). But at any rate the word does not taste lean, laconic, or spartan; it has ruffles and frills in its appearance, the p and d and ll and that extra curlicue e at the end.

Do you happen to know what an espadrille is? If not, please take a moment to hazard your own guess. If you do, think about what you would think it meant if you didn’t know what it meant. I’ll grab a sherry and be right back.

So? It is not a curly salad green (escarole) or a snail that might crawl on it (escargot). It is not a trellis, not a ball, not a dance, not a dress, not a high-heeled… Oh, wait, they do make high-heeled espadrilles too. But mostly they are flat-soled. Yes, they are shoes: those shoes with rope soles. They are fairly un-fancy, with their canvas uppers like tennis shoes (without laces); the intricate bit is just the jute braiding that makes up the sole. They’re worn all over the world, but they’re originally from the Pyrenees.

And originally, I should say, the soles were made with rope not of jute but of esparto (sometimes they still are). Esparto is a tall grass that grows in northwest Africa and southern Spain. The word esparto is the source of espadrille; you can see that the /t/ and /r/ underwent metathesis (reversal of order) and the /t/ became a /d/. The immediate source of espadrille is Provençal espardillo.

But what does esparto come from? From Latin spartum, from Greek σπάρτον sparton “a rope made with σπάρτος spartos”; spartos was the Greek name for the plant or for another similar one.

Does that make you wonder if Sparta has the same origin? Indeed, it seems that it does, though it is not known exactly what the association was between the plant or its rope and the famous Greek city (that was known for its disciplined and laconic warriors, who played a major part in the defeat of Troy – Helen was, after all, queen of Sparta before being taken by Paris to Troy). Where, by the way, is that city? In Laconia – whence the word laconic.

Which, as we can see, I am not. Nor spartan. But I also own no espadrilles. Unless you ask someone from Quebec, that is; in Québecois French, espadrilles is a normal word for runners or sneakers.