This word seems almost pregnant with possibility – especially, at least to my eyes, the possibility of food. Perhaps because it’s a French term, and in particular one that you don’t see every day, the assumption tends to the gastronomic. Of course, it could be some other stereotypically French thing – like an épée, say, or some diplomatic manoeuvre – but when I think of the land of Époisses and Bourgogne, my thoughts turn to cuisine.
I suppose this word isn’t obviously French to everyone. After all, epigone comes originally from Greek (via French, true), and we have a few cases of gn words from Greek as well (gnosis, for instance) – and Gnaeus was a Roman personal name (look as it might like the growling gruntings of Gnasher, the nasty little dog in the British strip called Dennis the Menace – no connection to Hank Ketcham’s American one of the same name). And in that light, the gn can look a bit gnarly. But if we can say lasagna and cologne, I think we can manage epergne.
Um, so how do we say it, by the way? Take it as a given that it’s not “ee-prrg-nee”; some will say it in the Anglicized way, sort of like “ippern”, and others will do the English rendition of the French pronunciation, like “eh pair’n”. If you know how to speak French, you know how it would be said in French; if not, never mind, just grab a cream puff and you won’t have to speak.
Cream puff? For what it’s worth, that’s what the three e’s in this remind me of. Of course, they could be serving bowls attached to a centrepiece or something like that. Serving bowls attached to a centrepiece? Who would have something like that? How about the sort of person who would have an epergne?
Yes, indeed. An epergne is a centrepiece, typically made of metal or sometimes glass or both, that has a larger central bowl with a number of smaller bowls (shallow or deep according to the design of the specific item) in orbit around it. The best way to get an idea of the thing is to look at lots of pictures of examples. For those of you who like to read classic fiction, you may recall it in a memorable scene in Great Expectations:
An epergne or centrepiece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
I also like this charming snip from Our Mutual Friend, also by Dickens:
‘Here you have as much of me in my ugliness as if I were only lead; but I am so many ounces of precious metal worth so much an ounce;—wouldn’t you like to melt me down?’ A corpulent straddling epergne, blotched all over as if it had broken out in an eruption rather than been ornamented, delivered this address from an unsightly silver platform in the centre of the table.
Indeed, in general, epergnes seem to be associated with wealth and its display – hoi polloi may have lazy Susans, but voici une Susanne paresseuse. This is possibly a great irony, as, inasmuch as anyone has any idea what the etymology of the word is, it seems to come from épargne. Which is French for “saving”.
Oh, but above all, remember this: in French, it’s not even called an epergne (or épergne). It’s called a surtout.
Thanks to Carolyn Bishop for suggesting epergne.