[PREAMBLE TO] A VERY SHORT ESSAY

Looking through some of the less well-known of Montaigne’s Essays last night I was struck by how effective, if often quite elliptical, the very brief ones are. And not only brief but a lot briefer in reality than in my half-remembered versions of them. (I would last have read the Essays ten or fifteen years ago.) The trick seems to be digression. That is, the essay itself is the digression — as if from some other, far loftier topic, to which the author might soon be expected to return. Except that he does not! So the essay — for some of these we might use the modern term feuilleton — looks like an aside, a little interlude hinting at longueurs that are in fact, thankfully, no longer extant. In French, “attempt” is “essai.” The following is my first attempt at this trick.

A Very Short Essay

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On rare occasions, very rare occasions, one’s vast repository of useless information — especially useless in my case, since little of it was acquired in the real world — comes in handy. A friend and I were standing in my kitchen yakking about language — a truly bizarre thing to be yakking about — when she said in a tone of exasperation, “Words are so strange!” She paused, looking around, then tapped the Formica next to the sink. “For instance this — why on earth do we call this a counter?”

“Ah,” I responded without the merest hesitation, never suspecting that her question was essentially rhetorical, “that’s because when you shopped for food, your mackerel or whatever, in Carolingian times, you would have laid your sovereigns and pennies on a flat table-top for the merchant to count them. This surface became known as the ‘counter.’”

I expected that my friend, astonished by such depth of arcane knowledge, would now drop to her knees, genuflecting and wailing hosannas. Instead she glanced at the clock and said, “Which reminds me — I should get going. I need to grab some groceries.”

She was already driving away as I remarked to myself silently, lips doubtless moving, “Hosanna — from the Greek ὡσαννά, this deriving from the Aramaic הושע נא, meaning savior.


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