A Nice Limber, Expressive, Handy Word

I've been thinking about how it feels when you don't have as much money as you'd like — whether you've just got the change at the bottom of your purse or pocket, or you're down to your last $5 before you get paid in a week, or your neighbors have so much more than you do that whatever's in the bank doesn't feel like it's enough.

Many things conspire to make us feel diminished by this. If you're going to fight back against that — and I think you should, even when your balance sheet shows more money than just spare change — you've got to do a sort of mental shift, an Escher-like move in your head. And then you'll see something where many people see nothing, and you'll be better able to give when you earlier felt you had nothing worth giving. I'm not talking about true poverty, by the way, but about the moments when we feel like we don't have enough, although objectively speaking, we have everything we need (shelter, food, warmth). I'm speaking of a kind of impoverishment that's foisted on us by the culture we live in, a feeling that we're lacking something, which creates the kind of panic that leads us to buy a lot of things at Walmart we don't really need.

In some communities, there are established social behaviors that help people triumph over feelings of impoverishment. In New Orleans, there's even a word for it: Lagniappe. It's a word that sums up a way of operating in the world that's generous and open-handed, even when everyone involved might be described as struggling.  The first time I heard it was in 1984, when I lived in a condemned apartment in Jackson Square, not far from the Mississippi River, over a kite shop. I guess it's kind of obvious it was a time when I had more leisure than money. But it was also a time when, between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon at a bar by the river, you could get really good oysters for ten cents on Fridays, simply because it was Friday.

Mark Twain is — as he always is — the best place to get a fuller sense of this idea:

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 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 a child a bit of liquorice root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, give 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 more time — this is for lagniappe."  When the beau perceives that he is stacking his compliments a trifle too high, and sees by the young lady's countenance that the edifice would have been better with the top compliment left off, he puts his "I beg pardon — no harm intended," into the briefer form of "Oh, that's for lagniappe."  If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says, "For lagniappe, sah," and gets you another cup without extra charge.

from Life on the Mississippi, 1883

That's it — a little something extra, something nobody expects, something that's small, but brings pleasure.  I'm going to make a list of those things, and then I'm going to make them a bigger part of the way I live now.


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