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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: persiflage

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:

PERSIFLAGE

Last week, in the first installment of the current Grammar Noir serial, “A Stet in the Dark,” one of the characters said, “This is not a moment for airy persiflage.” The Savoyards among you will recognize the borrowing from a line of Ko-Ko’s in The Mikado: “Is this a time for airy persiflage?”

Persiflage (pronounced PER-suh-flahzh) is frivolous or flippant speech or writing, bantering talk, light raillery.

English lifted the word from the French persifler, “to banter.” Merriam-Webster.com describes the derivation: It is “from the prefix per-, meaning ‘thoroughly,’ plus siffler, meaning ‘to whistle, hiss, or boo.’ Siffler in turn derived from the Latin verb sibilare, meaning ‘to whistle or hiss.’ ”

Example: From the introduction to Leslie A. Marchand’s Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals: “It is true that the persiflage of his letters is often a cover for the deep melancholy and low spirits which frequently obsessed him.”

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