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shameless pleading


Ho-Hum, yadda yadda.

Dear Word Detective: Reading a Slate article photographically documenting life in NY housing projects (photos taken by the residents themselves), I saw the sentence “In the images selected from among thousands for Project Lives, one sees depictions of daily life that are everyday almost to the point of being banal, which, Carrano says, is the point: Life in the projects, it should be known, can be as ordinary and sometimes dull as life anywhere.” “Banal” seems a common enough word, but has not been part of my vocabulary. (I’ve noticed short words often have rich histories.) A quick search indicates it’s from French/German “ban” — a call to arms. Surely there’s more to the story than it just becoming known as “common.” — Ray.

There is a bit more to the story of “banal,” but before we begin, a note on pronunciation is in order. When I was very young, I often found myself using words which I had read in books, but never heard spoken. This could be, on occasion, embarrassing. I remember spending quite a while trying to figure out how to pronounce “Sioux” (See-awks? Sy-oh?). I not only never thought to ask my parents (who were lexicographers, for Pete’s sake), but I never caught onto the fact that the word was used in nearly every Western horse-opera ever made. (It’s “Soo,” by the way.) Similarly, my initial attempts at “banal” made it sound like “bay-nall,” which I quickly learned was generally considered mockably wrong. It’s usually pronounced “bah-nal,” emphasis on the second syllable, which rhymes with “Al.”

The source of “banal,” which first appeared in English in the mid-19th century, is the French word “banal,” which, as it does in English, means “commonplace, ordinary.” But it also originally meant “communal” or “open to all,” and was formed on the noun “ban.” Today we use “ban” to mean an order forbidding something, but a “ban” was originally any sort of official edict, ranging from an order of conscription into military service to a decree granting permission to use shared facilities in feudal society such as mills, ovens, etc. The verb “to ban” itself comes from the Germanic root “bannan,” which also gave us such English words as “bandit” (from Italian “bandito,” from “bandire,” to banish), “banish” and “contraband” (literally something “against orders”).

Between the use of “ban” to mean “military conscription” and its use to define common resources “open to all,” the adjective “banal” took on the meaning of “commonplace,” and from there “banal” developed its modern pejorative sense of “ordinary, boring, trivial, uninteresting.”

Incidentally, if you’ve ever read any of the P.G. Wodehouse “Jeeves” stories, you’ve encountered one of the older members of the “ban” family, the form “banns,” meaning “proclamation of an intended marriage; a wedding announcement,” usually in the form of “publish” or “put up the banns,” giving an opportunity for aggrieved parties to object to the marriage. Nearly every Bertie and Jeeves story seems to involve someone (usually Bertie Wooster) attempting to evade the dreaded “banns.” This form is notable in that it preserves the original sense of “ban” as simply “a public proclamation,” not necessarily a negative one.

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