Saturday, September 24, 2011

Don’t Eat the Confetti

Listener Jim Dalyrimple wrote, “The word ‘confect’ intrigues me. Lots of languages use a similar word, ‘confet’, to mean candy. I've often wondered (having nothing better to do, apparently) how that relates to the word ‘confetti’, but I'm too lazy to look it up and figure it out for myself.”

Jim is referring to my blog of September 10, 2011. The word confect, meaning to build up or make ready, was the subject. Jim is correct about the candy bit: all of these words owe their existence to the Latin conficere. Spellings over the centuries and across various languages varied even though they are all first cousins. In Middle English, it was confyt; in Old French, we find confit; finally, in Shakespeare’s day, English settled on comfit.

It is a sweetmeat made of some fruit, seed, or root (such as ginger), and preserved with sugar. It’s usually round or oval in shape, and biting into it reveals the hidden core. Confetti is the plural for the Italian word for comfit, confetto. It became customary to throw imitation comfits at the bride and groom or at visiting dignitaries as a sign of celebration.

At first, the imitation comfits were three-dimensional. Often made of plaster, they would smash open and cover the participants in white powder. Eventually—probably as a matter of economy—they were constructed of two-dimensional paper punch-outs.

Sidebar: Historic Foods: sugarplums and comfits

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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