spree

What is a spree?

Well, where do you use the word? What is it most often seen with?

Shopping spree. And spending spree and buying spree. But also shooting spree and crime spree and killing spree.

A spree is a jag, a sudden and time-limited torrent of aggressive activity that involves a series of the same type of event (buying, shooting, etc.), reiteratively performing a self-indulgence with reckless abandon.

Look at the scatter-shot suggestion of the word: the spr onset that you see in spray, spritz, and sprinkle, but also in eruptive words such as spring, sprig, sprint, sprout, and the undisciplined sprawl; the ending is the gleeful, fleeting ee. And it does not stop on a tidy consonant; it simply arcs across the sky like whee.

But shopping and shooting are not the best kind of sprees, nor the earliest kind. The earlier sense is reflected in an Irish Gaelic phrasebook I have. It is often bruited about (misleadingly and generally inaccurately) that the Inuit have 10, 100, 1000, or a googolplex words for ‘snow’; well, Irish has quite a few words for ‘drunk’. (So does English, mind you.) At the end of a list of terms indicating various degrees of drunkenness, from ‘tipsy’ to ‘blind drunk’, is this gem: dul chun drabhláis (said like “dool hoon drawloish”). The translation given: “to go on a spree of revelry and debauchery.” Following that is chuaigh muid ar na canaí aréir (“hooey midge air na canee arrair”): “we went on a spree last night.”

Yes, a spree was first of all not shopping or shooting (we’ve had the word since at least the early 1800s, so come on) but frolicking, enjoying boisterous and noisy enjoyment (typically with drinking because obviously). And the word came from… well, that’s not agreed on; some say from Scots Gaelic spreath ‘plundered cattle’; others say from French esprit ‘spirit’.

But never mind stereotypes of the Irish (or the odd idea that the word may have come to us from the Scots, whose reputation is a little different). If you want to go on a spree, go to Berlin.

Why? Is it because of its nightlife, so famous in the ’30s but not gone now? Is it because of the shopping, from the great KaDeWe department store to the higher-end fashion shops? Is it because of something darker?

It’s because of something wetter. The river that runs through Berlin is the Spree.

But that’s a bit of a trick answer. The pronunciation of Spree is like English “shpray.” Guess what the name comes from: a German cognate of spray, meaning ‘spray’.

So go on a spray. Get soaked if you want. Spray your money around. But please, do not spray bullets.

4 responses to “spree

  1. Harold Rhenisch

    The German is interesting. Thanks for the tip! I poked around in the German etymological dictionary, on your hint, and in German, one of just many meanings for “sprühen” leans towards the pouring of drinks into glasses, no doubt the spray from clinking them, and the other kind of spraying that comes later, both of the watering the flowers kind and, if English is any guide (with “spray” coming from chaff) the sowing the wild oats kind. Quite the spree indeed! Again, thanks.

  2. Pingback: spry | Sesquiotica

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