Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Sweet and Sour Lover

After scouring the “L” sections of my various word books for something good enough for both the next entry in my strange words series and my first entry following an unplanned hiatus, I found one. Major points, here: I’d never heard it before, it makes for nice wordplay and I think I can relate it to 30 Rock fairly easily.
leman (LEH-men or LEE-men) — noun: 1. a sweetheart or lover. 2. a mistress
The entry in The Superior Person’s Book of Words also claims that one author cites “LAY-men” as a valid pronunciation, though none of my dictionaries offered it. If such a pronunciation does exist, I’d be all the more amused that this word leman can be pronounced three different ways that each don’t bring to mind the kind of person for whom you would sprinkle rose petals on the bedspread or with whom you’d duck into a dark alley. (Hey, everyone loves in their own way.) Superior also notes that the “lemon” and “layman” pronunciations “offer obvious opportunities.” Indeed they do, although I also see opportunities in that this archaic word either may or may not designate a gender — and when it does, it’s not the gender you might think the word part -man would signify. This is some Twelfth Night shit over here.

That -man at the end is exactly what you think it is, so the fact that leman would have eventually become associated with women in certain senses seems awfully strange. The rest of it traces either back to the Middle English leof or leif, both of which mean “dear.” (For all I know, both leog and leif are modern transcriptions of the same thing.) One source even makes a connection between leof and the Old English lufu, meaning “love.”

The implications of the word make for an interesting reading for Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s stand-in for herself on 30 Rock, which I sometimes forget is a vaguely autobiographical sitcom. The Wikipedia page on Liz Lemon cites a now-removed YouTube video in the explanation of where the name came from. No way to check it now, but it allegedly had Fey explaining that Lemon is “apparently intended to imply an acerbic personality and possibly also to make her full name alliterative.” But the fact that much of the show concerns Liz’s lovelife means she’s frequently also the other thing associated with the pronounced sound “leh-men.” A sour dud and lining up dates nonetheless: That’s good news for all of us — these guys in particular.

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