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Word of the week: Jaunty

Type: Reference material

Heard a jaunty tune lately? Tim Bowen follows this lively adjective all the way from its noble beginnings in France.

A recent review of an album of songs described one song as 'jaunty'. This gives the impression of a lively, fast-moving, perhaps confident song. Indeed The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines jaunty as 'lively and confident'. Other sources give 'self-confident', 'spirited' and 'sprightly in manner or appearance'.

The origin of the word, however, appears to have very little to do with liveliness. It is generally believed to derive from the French word gentil, which originally meant courteous or having a noble character. Arriving in English in the 16th century, it retained its links to good breeding but the English were unable to pronounce it correctly and it eventually became jaunty, meaning elegant or well bred. Also related to gentle, it is uncertain exactly when jaunty acquired its lively connotation, but the self-confident aspect does appear to be related to the idea of nobility. Given the common origin of the words, it is interesting to note the contrast between a jaunty song and a gentle one.

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