Some years ago I was in an upscale grocery store and noticed the following sign:

The irony was as delicious as the fruit cobbler (presumably), and while the sign suggests enjoying it with ice cream, I prefer to enjoy it with you: of all the words to mess up, perfection is the worst one. Our word perfección/perfection comes straight from the Latin stem perfection-, derived from the past participle of the verb perficere ‘to achieve, carry out, accomplish.’ That in turn was a compound of the important verb facere ‘to do,’ the ancestor of the equally important Spanish hacer. The prefix per- added a sense of thoroughness or completion, and as a result perfección/perfection is a state in which something has been done so thoroughly and so well that nothing can surpass it. Incorporating the same stem as the noun is our adjective perfecto/perfect. English perfect, with a shift of stress to the second syllable, doubles as a verb, while Spanish makes its verb perfeccionar not directly from the adjective but from the noun perfección. The opposite of perfecto/perfect is imperfecto/imperfect, a good description for this sign, which not only left the r out of perfection but also mistakenly turned the past participle topped into the bare verb top.

But back to food: having spoken of cobbler and ice cream, I find myself with a perfect opening to add that English has the doublet parfait, the French cognate of perfect. A parfait is a dessert made with layers of ice cream, fruit, meringue and syrup, all topped (not top, the grocery sign’s second fall from perfection) with whipped cream. Whether you find the parfait to be the perfect dessert is a matter of preference, of course; as the French say, Chacun à son goût, Cada uno a su gusto, Each to his own taste.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. John Rauch
    Sep 23, 2014 @ 17:04:20

    I enjoy your writing a lot. Have you written about the cognates right and derecho? Their common root seems obvious just looking at them. But I find it interesting that these words have two very different meanings, and in both Spanish and English. There’s “right” as in a legal right or a civil right. And there’s “right” as in the opposite of left. And as similar as right/derecho are etymology, left/izquierdo could not be more different, it seems.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 23, 2014 @ 21:28:09

      I’m glad you’re enjoying this column, John.
      I haven’t yet done a post about right and derecho, which do indeed share an Indo-European root. The root proved such a productive one that I’ve hesitated to get started with it because I’d need a bunch of posts to do it justice. I’ll see if I can cook something up in the months ahead.


  2. shoreacres
    Sep 28, 2014 @ 18:34:13

    Isn’t it interesting that they got ‘streusel’ right, but not ‘top(ped)’? I first read the sign as saying, “Baked to Defection,” which certainly explained your choice of perfect/imperfect as a topic.

    What you’ve said here about perfection as a “state in which something has been done so thoroughly and so well that nothing can surpass it” reminds me of the discussion we had about something being “unique.” I’m much more careful how I use that word now, and I’m going to be a little more cautious with “perfect,” too.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 29, 2014 @ 23:10:22

      It’s strange indeed that the sign maker could get Streusel right but not topped or perfection. I can see why the style of printing led you to read the misspelled pefection as defection, which is a good word to describe the writer’s departures from good English.

      Because perfect is an absolute, perfectionists used to advise people to say more nearly perfect rather than more perfect. That prescription gave up the ghost a long time ago, and I’m afraid the battle against more unique and very unique is also lost.


  3. kathryningrid
    Sep 28, 2014 @ 21:50:28

    I think it’s kind of a shame that we’re not talking about French translations here so I could enjoy a “pefect” *DIRTY* fruit cobbler. 😀


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 29, 2014 @ 23:14:00

      I’ve been known to do some cross-language wordplay, so I appreciate your wanting to turn this sale into something less salubrious. You’ve reminded me of Rimbaud’s lines “Au bourdon farouche / De cent sales mouches.”


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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