Monday, April 29, 2013

Pick A Picayune

The venerable New Orleans Times-Picayune, long the iconic daily newspaper of the Crescent City, has curtailed publication to only three days a week.  This is a sad state of affairs for a proud paper, with several Pulitzer Prizes, whose staff at various times included O. Henry, William Faulkner, cartoonist Walt Handelsman, and Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, who, as Dorothy Dix, dispensed advice to several generations of love-troubled readers.

The Picayune’s tragic decline calls to mind a perennial question: why would anyone name a newspaper the Picayune—a word that means “petty, paltry, contemptible, and insignificant”?

If you have read my book Porcupine, Picayune, & Post, you know the answer to this question, but for other less fortunate and benighted customers of this blog, I will lay out the background once more.  A picayune was initially a Spanish coin in Louisiana and Florida, worth a little more than 6 cents.  The word comes from the French picaillon, adopted from the Provençal picaioun, a diminutive of the Portuguese picalho, which means “money.”  After the United States acquired Louisiana in 1803, the name picayune persisted and was applied to the five-cent piece (also known as a “fippeny bit”).

When Francis Lumsden and George W. Kendall, two ambitious Easterners, arrived in New Orleans in 1837 and decided to start a newspaper, they tried to outdo the city’s other journals, which all cost a dime or more, by charging only five cents.  As a marketing ploy, they named the newspaper for what it cost—a picayune.  In 1914 the Picayune merged with the Times-Democrat and became the Times-Picayune. 

No coin is small enough to charge for the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou. If there were something worth, let us say, 1/1,000th of a picayune, that would still be too much. Just see for yourself:

          Way down yonder in New Orleans,
           The land of those Creole cuisines, 
           With dirty rice, red kidney beans, 
           Filé gumbo, galantines, 
           Pompano and peppered greens, 
           Turtle soup and trout terrines, 
           Étoufées and smoked sardines, 
           Remoulades, pecan pralines— 
           Food that’s fit for kings and queens, 
           Not recipes of Paula Deen’s!

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