Bill Bryson, the prolific Anglo-American author who writes about everything under the sun and sells lots of books doing it, has a problem with epergne. The word, which denotes an elaborate, tiered centerpiece typically holding several dishes or vases, certainly looks French. But Bryson says the word doesn’t exist in the French language and no one knows its origin. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, he writes, “For a century or so, no table of discernment was without its epergne, but why it was called an epergne no one remotely knows. It just seems to have popped into being from nowhere.”
But words don’t pop out of nowhere, do they?
Certainly, it’s not unusual for a word’s origin to be uncertain. Roughly half the words I look up in the Oxford English Dictionary offer only weaselly, wishy-washy, namby-pamby etymologies. In Bryson’s defense of its non-French origin, epergne does not have an acute accent on the first e, as you might expect, as in étagère. And the pronunciation is invariably given as EE-PURN (or sometimes A-PURN), but never with the second syllable rendered as anything resembling PAIRN-YA, as a French word might be pronounced.
On the other hand, a lot of French transplants, like epaulet, lose their accents crossing the Channel. And don’t forget the Brits have always been impatient with foreign pronunciations—some of them even insisting the Belgian town of Ypres is called “Wipers.”
But where did epergne come from, then?
The O.E.D. is willing to admit that it is perhaps….just perhaps…a corruption of the French épargne, which means “saving” or “economy.” It’s a leap from that meaning to a table centerpiece, but Wikipedia’s language expert suggests that diners were able to help themselves to finger foods like fruit, nuts, sweetmeats, pickles, etc., from the epergne, and were thus “saved” the trouble of passing their plates. Hmmmm.
If an epergne revolves, it might be called a “lazy Susan,” an Americanism from 1906, for which none of the discreetly prudent dictionaries I have seen wishes to venture an etymology.
In French, incidentally, an epergne is known as a surtout, which also means “above all” or “especially.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes to fill his epergne with gummy bears and jelly babies to provide a wholesome snack as he puts pen to parchment to regale his dwindling coterie of fans with semi-verses like this one:
The hoity-toity epergne,
It may not surprise you to lergne,
Has ergned the disdagne
Of folks who are plagne,
And really just don’t give a dergne.