• persiflage •
Pronunciation: pêr-sê-flahzh • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)
Meaning: Gently teasing banter, light-hearted mildly ironic chit-chat on the level of pulling someone's leg.
Notes: A person who indulges or excels as persiflage is none other than a persifleur, a word which still hasn't left its French home, despite having been borrowed by English nearly 200 years ago. The verb, persiflate, would hardly be used because, well, it is a bit of persiflage itself, dreamed up by Thackeray for his novel, Vanity Fair.
In Play: Persiflage is best done tongue in cheek: "I think that when Mary Widdow said that your soufflé flambé reminded her of a wonderland of great flames, she might have been indulging in a bit of persiflage." Great men and women are known for their great persiflage. Bernard Shaw once wrote Sir Winston Churchill, "I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend . . . if you have one." Sir Winston maintained the persiflage with: "Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second . . . if there is one." (For more, see our glossary of Insults with Class.)
Word History: Today's Good Word is the noun from the French verb persifler "to banter", made up of per- (intensifier) + siffler, "to whistle". Siffler is the descendant of Latin sibilare "to whistle, hiss", about which we know almost nothing. Per-, however, comes from the Latin preposition per "through, for, by". It shares a source with Old Persian pari "around", which combined with daeza- "wall" to form paridaeza- "garden wall". The Greek historian Xenophon, writing about the lush gardens of Persian princes, referred to the gardens themselves as paradeiso. This word was then used to translate "Garden of Eden" in the Septuagint translation of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek. Latin converted it to paradisus, which English snitched and honed into paradise. (Our gratitude today is owed Max Davies for adding this Good Word to our lush lexical garden without a detectable trace of persiflage.)