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

In a word: festoon

The Baltimore Sun

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


As spring brings colorful new growth and blooms, we bring flowers and cuttings into our homes and public places to decorate and enliven them. When we get really enthusiastic, we festoon rooms with daffodils, forsythia, dogwood, and whatever comes to hand.

Festoon (pronounced fes-TOON) came into English first in the mid seventeenth-century as a noun for a decorative chain suspended between two points, later as a carved, molded, or painted ornament resembling a decorative chain.

By the mid-eighteenth century it had become a verb, meaning to hang festoons or shape into festoons. Finally it took on the broad meaning of decorating or adorning, with the sense of doing so abundantly.

It came into English from the French feston and the Italian festone, ultimately from the Latin festa, “festival,” so a festive sense is baked into its etymology.

Example: From a description of gannets by Bryan Nelson in “Lessons from Captives,” Natural History, June 2013: “Scores of doomed youngsters sit stoically amongst the nettles and rank grasses, fouled by droppings and molted feathers, that festoon the base of the cliffs.”

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