Ever walk into a store and purchase something, and as you conclude your purchase, the merchant thanks you with a small gift? Perhaps you bought a pair of shoes, and you get a free pair of socks; or you walk into a See’s Candies shop and get a free candy after obtaining your chocolate fix (in addition to the free sample)? It happens to be a lovely unexpected gesture that has an equally lovely word: lagniappe. The word is pronounced “LAN yap,” derived from the South American Spanish phrase, la yapa or la ñapa, meaning “a free extra, but inexpensive, item” or “a little extra” — in other words, a small token of appreciation. The word was initially introduced in Louisiana, since it was once part of the Spanish Empire. However because the word’s spelling has been influenced by French, it is mistakenly considered a Cajun French or Louisiana Creole French word.
In America, the custom of lagniappe goes back to the mid to late 19th century when street merchants would give their customers a small gift with their purchase; for example, a vegetable vendor might give a customer a free bunch of cilantro or green chili peppers. Legendary American novelist and humorist Mark Twain was enamored with the word. In his popular book, Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883, Twain writes: “We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — ‘lagniappe.’ They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop—or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying — “Give me something for lagniappe.” The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely.”
So the next time a merchant rewards you with a small token of appreciation, turn around and say, “Well, thank you kind sir (or madam) for the thoughtful lagniappe!” and watch the bewildered expression on their face. Priceless.
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