Words Like Passersby on the Street

Waaaaaay back in the 1980s when my sister and I lived in the same city (San Francisco), we used to sit by the window in this liittttle shop on Haight Street called Just Desserts, watch people and make up stories about ’em.

I still loooove doing that; I just have no one to do it with, which leaves me lonely as a human and unstimulated as a writer.

Anyhow, as a subscriber to Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Day,” I receive a new word in my email every morning. Many I know. Some I don’t. Some are downright weird and either easily forgotten or have slim to no chance of being incorporated into my vocabulary.

Still others are “oh yeah, I’ve seen that word!” but the definition’s outside my mental fingertips. I like those the best. They return a bump up in word knowledge and  vocabulary for common or everyday use.

Today’s word is chinoiserie.

Until today, unfamiliar and unseen and the pronunciation. Looks French and I hated the sounds of the French language (so much so that I took no more than one quarter in college) so I won’t overreach for  pronunciation.

Immediately my thoughts drifted back to me and my sister seated at those tiny tables in that tiny shop making up stories of passersby.

Something about the way chinoiserie looks inspired me to hold back on opening the email and playfully view it as a passerby. On looks along, what’s its story? Meaning? Play along if you’d like!

Something French, straightaway.

Chinoiserie: a kind of bag or purse carried by harlots and ladies of the night back in the ’20s in France and Paris, I’d say.

or

Chinoiserie: a hairstyle, like a chignon.

So … da-da-da-dum drum roll please:

Wow was I off! — albeit not grossly as revealed in the etymology.

{spoiler alert}

Chinoiserie

pronounced: sheen-wah-zuh-REE

a style in art (as in decoration) reflecting Chinese qualities or motifs; also : an object or decoration in this style

Example:

We admired our host’s daring taste in home décor, which combined spare modern elements with chinoiserie.

“Bamboo chairs vie with 19th-century lacquered armoires, nooks covered in chinoiserie toile and paisley-block prints exude irresistible coziness, and whimsical yet inviting rooms reflect a confluence of historical periods ranging from Rococo to Regency.” — From an article by Lindsay Talbot in Harper’s Bazaar, October 1, 2013

Etymology:

n 1670, King Louis XIV had the Trianon de Porcelaine erected at Versailles. It was a small structure—a pleasure house built for the king’s mistress—and it was decorated with chinoiserie and faced with faience tiles with a blue and white chinoiserie pattern. The building persists in history as the first major example of chinoiserie—the English word is borrowed straight from French, which based the word on “chinois,” its word for “Chinese”—but the trend it began long outlasted the building itself, which was destroyed a mere 17 years later to make way for the Grand Trianon. Chinoiserie itself was popular throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and enjoyed a brief revival in the 1930s. And people still enjoy it today.

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