“We picked up one word … worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — “lagniappe.” They pronounce it lanny-yap … 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 is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ “
— Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
Are the days of ‘a little unexpected extra‘ over?
During a working session on values, my business partner Steve Holyer introduced me to this delight from his childhood home: lagniappe, a Cajun word for an “unexpected something extra;” a small gift, given to surprise and delight. It exemplifies the collision of Quechua, Spanish and French cultures that is southern Louisiana creole – but the concept itself is practiced in many parts of the world.
It’s no surprise that we found deep resonance around such a word: “Cajun” derives from the french-speaking Acadians deported by the British in the French and Indian war, from what would become my home: Canada. Both Steve and I grew up among peoples that had made a life from practically nothing, who had managed to preserve traditions of abundance and joy through times of deep poverty.
The beauty of lagniappe is that there is no catch: it’s fun to give, and fun to receive. There is no expectation of reciprocity, just the creation of a happy memory. At the same time, lagniappe also includes a sort of sleight-of-hand – the visible gift is a ruse, an excuse, to connect in another way.
The folktale known as Stone Soup reveals the spirit of lagniappe, when the hungriest of all offer what they have – creativity, energy and three stones – and thereby conjure a happy feast for everyone – including those who swore there wasn’t enough to share! In fact, the essence of lagniappe is not the gift, but the gesture itself, the open hand that offers the gift, saying: Life is good! Come, share my joy!
Disambiguation, for clarity: lagniappe is neither the crappy t-shirt you end up waxing the car with, nor the coveted iPad awarded to ‘one lucky ticket holder’.
Lagniappe is a hundred cheerful cupcakes… enough for all. One for you!
And in that spirit, if you’re near my town I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee, so drop me a note! Sadly, many of you are far away, and so this must do: imagine my friend Steve, from Picayune, holding out a cheerful cupcake to you … and take a moment to look beyond it, at the smile lines around his eyes, as he says:
“it’s just a little Happy for you” :-)