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shameless pleading

Jaunty

Trippin’

Dear Word Detective: My officemate welcomed me back from a recent business trip with facetious comments about my “jaunt,” and asked if I had brought back anything “jaunty” as a souvenir. This immediately made both of us wonder what the connection is between “jaunt” meaning “trip” and “jaunty” meaning “lively,” as in “jaunty hat” or “jaunty demeanor.” Is the logic of “jaunty” that people who leave town a lot are likely to be in a good mood? Not in my case. — Jetlagged, NYC.

You and me both, bucko. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “What’s the point of going out? We’re just gonna wind up back here anyway.” When I worked in a office they would often try to send me places, sometimes just across town, but I would always respond with my Bartleby the Scrivener routine (“I would prefer not to”), and eventually they gave up. You should try it.

Your suggestion of a “good mood” connection between “jaunt” and “jaunty” is both inspired and plausible. Unfortunately, it’s not even a little bit true. There is absolutely no connection between “jaunt” and “jaunty,” which strikes even me as weird, but there it is.

“Jaunt” first appeared in English in 1597, in Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” (“Lord how my bones ache … Fie, what a jaunt have I had.”). As you might infer from the tone of that line, “jaunt” originally meant, not a happy holiday trip, but a long and tiresome journey. It wasn’t until nearly a century later that “jaunt” came into use meaning a trip taken for pleasure (“Your idle jants, taken for amusement only.” 1768) and the old oh-what-a-drag sense of “jaunt” persisted until the late 19th century (“This rough jaunt—alone through night and snow.” Robert Browning, 1879).

Unfortunately, the origin of “jaunt” is a bit of a mystery. It first appeared as a verb, in the late 16th century, meaning “to tire out a horse by making it prance back and forth,” which was expanded to mean “to make a person run to and fro.” That fits with the “tiresome trip” sense of “jaunt,” but the word “jaunt” itself remains obscure. It may have been borrowed from Old French.

The initial meaning of “jaunty” when it appeared in English in the late 17th century was “well-bred, genteel” when applied to persons, “stylish or elegant” in regard to things (“With a jantee pair of Canvass Trowzers.” 1708). The current “lively” sense, which first appeared in 1672, is well-defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “Easy and sprightly in manner; having or affecting well-bred or easy sprightliness; affecting airy self-satisfaction or unconcern” (“He wore a jaunty cap and jacket.” Dickens, 1841), or “lively, brisk” (“The ladies have a jaunty walk.” 1866).

In contrast to the mystery surrounding the origin of “jaunt,” the source of “jaunty” is satisfyingly certain. “Jaunty” was born as an Anglicized pronunciation and phonetic spelling of the French “gentil,” meaning “noble, proper, pleasing, genteel” (“genteel” itself, as well as “gentle,” were earlier borrowings of “gentil” into English). Since we already had “genteel” to cover the “refined and proper” bases, it’s not surprising that “jaunty” eventually downplayed those senses and primarily came to reflect the “having a good time” and “taking it easy” side of life. After all, being “jaunty” is probably much more fun than being “genteel.”

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