Lagniappe. Oh, what a great word!

June 28, 2014 

I hand Scott a bag filled with salad veggies and my own home-grown lettuce.

"Here's your lagniappe," I smile.

He looks suspiciously at the brown bag.

And why wouldn't he? Lagniappe? What's that?

We are not on the Mississippi Coast, but on a little Virginia hill, dripping in sweat after spending hours in the June heat attempting to beat the hard clay and rock, mistakenly called earth, into gardening submission. For his hard work Scott deserves a little something extra.

Several days later a friend, Sharon, shows up in the morning with her grandson, and two buckets of rocks. I have several landscaping projects that require lots of rocks, and my large collection piles have dwindled to nothing. The night before, I'd helped Sharon fill lots of big bags with leaves for mulch. Recyclable tree litter is never lacking on this woodsy hill, and I gladly share.

Sharon's return with rocks is unexpected. I had laughed the night before, admitting, "You'd think on this hill I would not run out of rocks."

Little Austin is proud of his rock collecting, now sitting in two buckets, and he happily tows my rock-laden cart to the latest rock project. As they get in the car, I say, "Thanks for my lagniappe."

There is that blank stare again. Lagniappe?

Origins of a great word

As I did with Scott, I explain to Sharon and Austin that lagniappe is one of my favorite words from home. It's a feel-good word, fun to speak aloud. It's musical and mysterious and filled with history, all at the same time.

The word "lagniappe," pronounced lan-yap, is unique to the Gulf Coast region. It's a regional American word, although people like me spread it like jam wherever else we may go. I even had Irish friends using it when I lived there.

Research indicates the word first appeared in the mid-1800s around New Orleans, when that wonderful mix of Acadians and Creoles melded their native French and Spanish languages. La napa is Spanish for something extra, or just a bit more for free, a gesture of kindness. La napa has its origins in a Quechua (native Central American) word yapa, for gift or tip.

Combine the two and voila! Lagniappe is born.

At first it was used mostly by tradesmen in the New Orleans region, as a small gift for good customers. This melodic noun that has come to mean "a little something extra" is now common speak. With a colonial umbilical cord still running between New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast, it's not unusual to hear it today in Bay St. Louis, Biloxi or Bayou Cumbest.

Twain spotlights the word

Once again I turn to Mark Twain to help explain a bit of Southerness, for in his "Life on the Mississippi," Twain explains lagniappe with humor and insight. The book on his life as a river steamboat captain was first published in 1883, and in it he explains:

"We picked up one excellent word -- a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word -- 'lagniappe.' They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish -- so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a 'baker's dozen.' It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city.

"When a child or a servant buys something in a shop -- or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know -- he finishes the operation by saying 'Give me something for lagniappe.' The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor -- I don't know what he gives the governor; support likely.

"... If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says 'For lagniappe, sah,' and gets you another cup without extra charge."

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535-4567.

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