Word Hoard

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Elan for Ellen

élan \ay-LAHNG (the "NG" is not pronounced, but the vowel is nasalized)noun: vigorous spirit or enthusiasm

Here is what Merriam-Webster's word of the day editors had to say, with some editing from me for lameness, about this fine word's origin:

Once upon a time, English speakers did not have "élan." We had, however, "elance," a verb meaning "to hurl" that was used specifically for throwing lances and darts. "Elance" derived down the line from Middle French "(s')eslancer," meaning "to rush" or "dash" (that is, "to hurl oneself forth"). We tossed out "elance" a century and half ago. Just about that time we found "élan," a noun that traces to "(s')eslancer." We copied "élan" in form from the French, but we dispensed with the French sense of a literal "rush" or "dash," retaining the sense of enthusiastic animation that we sometimes characterize as "dash."

I like this word: first, it is short (I'm always impressed when we can pack so much meaning into such a small space. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but four letters can give you a world of meaning.); second, it is a bit deceptive (I don't see its energy or vigor, but it's there.); and finally, it pairs so nicely with elegance (Hale and Hearty, Vim and Vigor, meet Elegance and Elan). I think it pairs with elegance conceptually as well as orthographically. I really like the image of something or someone being both graceful and full of energy, a strong fluidity.

The talk about rushing and "hurling oneself forth" reminded me of gadarene. Gadarene comes from the passage in the Book of Matthew, 8:28ish, where Jesus sends two demons into a herd of swine, who then run over a cliff to their deaths. That gadarene is probably only matched in elan by the crowds entering a Wal-Mart at 5AM on the day after Thanksgiving. A group of possessed swine, yep that pretty much sums up the American consumer.

Welcome Ellen, may you find enough elan to complete all your semester end stuff.


  • At December 07, 2006 1:42 AM, Blogger Michael Covarrubias said…

    Certainly before élan [< Fr élancer] came to us from the French some might have relied on elance [< Fr élancer]. That sounds odd to me. Does M-W claim that the semantics simply changed?

    This word has a false friend in Old English. And this may be even more appropriate for Ellen, since the OE word is ellen. It's a Teutonic word not from the French.

    I saw it all over the place in Beowulf which I finished translating just this week.

  • At December 07, 2006 1:45 AM, Blogger Michael Covarrubias said…

    Oh yes--

    ellen meant bravery, strength, courage, valour, and even zeal.

  • At December 07, 2006 4:27 PM, Blogger Ellen said…

    then, i'm not feeling much like myself these days. i haven't slept or showered in a long time so there's not much strength, zeal, courage, or bravery representing.

    anyway, daniel, like i said on the phone your owning and selling this blog...


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