Prêt à Analyser

The humblest text can be a fruitful hunting ground. To wit:

This napkin is 100% recyclable (Pret’s sustainability department is militant, we’re making headway). If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don’t need or want) please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not’

It’s from the paper napkin given to customers of the sandwich restaurant chain Pret a Manger

Etymology

The first syllable of napkin is from nape, a tablecloth, which by a circuitous route, is from map, probably because maps were first drawn on pieces of cloth. The suffix -kin is a diminutive. In Professor Ross’s terms, napkin is the U word, serviette the non-U word. The word apron is from the same root, but its n got transposed to the definite article by a process known as metanalysis.

Recyclable is a much newer word, first attested in 1969. The first syllable carries the sense of again. The verb recycle first occurs in 1925 with the sense ‘To reuse (material) in an industrial process; to return (material) to a previous stage of a cyclic process.’

Prêt is a French word meaning ‘ready’, but it is found in English as early as the sixteenth century. The circumflex (^) represents a missing s, and pres is found meaning ‘ready for action or use; at hand; prepared; in proper order’ in the fourteenth century. Prêt à manger echoes prêt-à-porter, used to describe clothes that are ready to wear. The French name gives a degree of perceived sophistication to the restaurants, as well as describing the readiness of the food for consumption. The omission of the two diacritics is perhaps forgivable in a trade name.

Sustainability in the sense ‘the quality of being sustainable by argument; the capacity to be upheld or defended as valid, correct, or true’ is first attested in 1835, but in the sense ‘the property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources’, it occurs for the first time only in 1980.

Militant meaning ‘engaged in warfare, warring. Also: disposed towards war; warlike’ has a long history from the fifteenth century onwards, but in the sense ‘combative; aggressively persistent; strongly espousing a cause; entrenched, adamant’ it is found as early as 1603. In the sense ‘aggressively active in pursuing a political or social cause, and often favouring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods’ it first occurs in 1893, but that is probably not the sense which the restaurant has in mind.

Conventional grammar

Some might want to question the use of a comma to separate the two clauses Pret’s sustainability department is militant and we’re making headway. This is known as a comma splice, and seems to be a feature that particularly bothers speakers of American English, but it didn’t bother Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven . . .

Given the informal nature of the text, and the fact that the sentence occurs as an aside, the anti-splicers might perhaps be a little indulgent.

 Creativity

Ronald Carter argues in ‘Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk’ that pretty much any text will be creative in one way or another. There’s evidence of that here. Militant is not a word you’d normally associate with restaurant workers, unless they were of the striking kind. Serviette-ish could well be the first instance of the word. There is figurative language in the nautical making headway, and bunches of napkins suggests a bouquet of flowers. Evil eye presses into service a concept from ancient cultures, and the alliterative and proverbial Waste not want not creates a sense of solidarity by appealing to a piece of common folk wisdom.

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