Lagniappe and Life

There should have been no reason to cry.

In the house on the road to the Amite river, with memories of Verlinda Harrell’s ferry stirring in the breeze and the old Baton Rouge-Springfield road still leading down to the crossing, the pace of life was slow — easy and enjoyable.

Part of a world perfectly designed for childhood wandering, its Spanish moss-draped oaks invited climbing, and the tire dangling from its sturdy limb seemed to demand swinging. On cots arrayed across the screened-in sleeping porch, we dreamed our dreams on mattresses filled with moss in the sweet, magnolia scented air.

In season, we picked lemons, or pecans. In spring, we ate our way through dewberry patches down to the river, where cypress and tupelo drank from the easy current, shadowing and protecting the creatures passing among them.

In such a world, there should have been no reason to cry.

And yet I stood in my great-aunt’s kitchen, tears streaming down my face, undone by profound and obvious misery. Seeing my distress, Aunt Fannie said, “Good heavens, child. Did you hurt yourself?” I wasn’t hurt — at least, not in the way she meant it. I shook my head. “Come see, then. Let’s have some lemonade, and go out on the gallery.”

With lemonade to enjoy, the tears soon stopped. “Now,” she said. “Tell me. What’s troubling you?” Reluctantly, I confessed. “I don’t want to take a nap.” “A nap?” she said. “Who told you to take a nap?” “Beulah. She said I had to lay down and nap.”

Absent-mindedly brushing away one of the dogs, Fannie stood up and headed into the house. “Drink your lemonade. I’ll ask what she said.”

In less time than it took to finish the lemonade, Fannie and Beulah were back, and both were laughing. A common Louisiana phrase, combined with Beulah’s lovely but noticeable accent, had led to misunderstanding. When she offered me a tidbit from the kitchen and said, “Take this for lagniappe,” I interpreted her words as a suggestion that I should “take a nap.” 

I endured years of good-natured teasing about my confusion, until the teasers were taken by death and the incident forgotten. But the word had become embedded into my vocabulary. Eventually, I began to truly appreciate the usefulness and beauty of that unusual word: lagniappe.

The word itself is French Creole, rooted in the Spanish la ñapa —a gift — which itself may be related to the Quechuan yapa  — something added, or a gift.

The word began to appear in the south, particularly in New Orleans, around the mid-1800s; merchants used it to describe small extras, or bonuses, given to customers.

The best early description of the word was written by Mark Twain in his 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi:

We picked up one excellent word — a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word –“lagniappe”. They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said.
We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth.
It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a “baker’s dozen.” It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure.
The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop — or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying “Give me something for lagniappe”. The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely.
When you are invited to drink — and this does occur now and then in New Orleans — and you say, “What? Again? No, I’ve had enough,” the other party says, “But just this one time more — this is for lagniappe.”
If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says, “F’r lagniappe, sah,” and gets you another cup without extra charge.

The meaning of the word has continued to spread. Dan Gill, garden correspondent for The Times-Picayune, once wrote that “Spanish moss is atmospheric lagniappe in Louisiana landscapes.”

His clever phrase points to a larger truth. Just as shopkeepers, restaurateurs, family, or friends will extend lagniappe from time to time, so the world offers us lagniappe: unexpected and wholly undeserved gifts that lead to delight and appreciation.

Piles of vividly colored milo in Kansas; a ladies’ tresses orchid in Arkansas; the aerial courting display of a great white egret in Texas: each in its own way is lagniappe, the “something extra” that adds beauty and interest to our lives.

In her characteristic way, Annie Dillard suggests the existence of lagniappe in nature when she writes:

This, then, is the extravagant landscape of the world: given with pizzazz, given in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.

That sense of extravagance, that exuberance and beauty I see everywhere in nature  has led me develop a new blog site titled, “Lagniappe: Images and Incidentals.” As I say there:

I love to write, and “The Task at Hand” always will be my primary site: my place for essays, stories, and poetry. On the other hand, photography has opened new worlds to me. Now and then, I take special delight in a photo, and have wanted a place to post those I enjoy.

Now, I have that place. A link to “Lagniappe” is available at the top of this page, just as a link to “The Task At Hand” is found in the same spot on the new page.

In certain circles, it’s considered poor form to laugh at our own jokes, and I suppose some might consider it in bad taste to enjoy our own work.  But I do take pleasure in many of my photos, and I hope you do, too.

They’re for lagniappe.

Comments always are welcome. To hear “lagniappe” spoken, click here.