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Pears at a fruit and vegetable stand at Vancouver's Granville Island, Nov. 16, 2010. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Pears at a fruit and vegetable stand at Vancouver's Granville Island, Nov. 16, 2010. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Warren Clements

Pear kinship still doesn't make for a perfect pair Add to ...

Did many people break up (cry) when they heard that singer Katy Perry and actor Russell Brand had broken up (separated)? More to the point, how could Brand file for divorce when, etymologically, the two performers were destined to be together?

Perry, derived in the 1300s by way of French from the classical Latin pirum (pear), is a cider-like drink made from the juice of pears. Russelet, a noun that entered English in the 1600s from the French rousselet, refers to any variety of pear with a russet (reddish-brown) skin. How could two pears not be one pair?

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It might be argued that although the performers’ names are grounded in food, they are from two different worlds. Brandade, imported from French in the early 1800s, derives from the modern Provençal word brandado (“thing which has been moved or shaken,” according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary) and means a Provençal dish made from salt cod. That’s earthy food. By contrast, cate (pronounced “kate”) referred in the 1400s to “a choice article of food; a dainty, a delicacy.”

Still, if any couple were to burn its bridges, it makes sense that one of them would be named Brand. The original meaning of brand in Old English was destruction by fire, the source of the modern noun firebrand. (“Until I saw the profile of Katy Perry on CBS Sunday Morning,” an article in Florida’s Orlando Sentinel said on Oct. 1, 2010, “I knew little about her except that she sang the infectious California Gurls and that she is engaged to firebrand Russell Brand.”)

Should anyone wish to offer a consoling bouquet to the distraught Perry, the appropriate choice is African gardenias, known by the Afrikaans name katjiepiering.

The week’s news brought other verbal serendipity. The federal government will create an official bureau to condemn the religious persecution of people abroad. According to the article by The Globe’s Steven Chase, the Conservatives “will finally flesh out a campaign promise to install the Office of Religious Freedom within the secular confines of the Department of Foreign Affairs.”

While others debate the wisdom of this move, Word Play’s interest is in the origin of “office.” It entered medieval English around 1300 from Old French, which borrowed it from the Latin officium, performance of a task, from the elements opus (work) and facere (do). And, says the Oxford English Dictionary, its first English sense was “an authorized form of divine service or worship.” By inaugurating an Office of Religious Freedom, the Harper Conservatives will be going medieval on their assailants.

Elsewhere in Wordland, reader Robert Burn writes: “I am looking for a Canadian riff on the British expression ‘might as well fan it with a kipper,’ for an utterly futile intervention. Suggestions?”

The closest I can come is the old line about locking the barn door after the horse has bolted, or various expressions that use a blow with a wet noodle as a metaphor for ineffectual. David Crystal’s book As They Say in Zanzibar offers a few international candidates that might stock the pool.

From Ireland: “It is no use throwing water on a dead rat.” From Japan: “It is no use applying eye medicine from a two-storey window.” From China: “You won’t help shoots grow by pulling them up higher.” From India: “It is in vain to look for yesterday’s fish in the house of the otter.” (That would include kippers.)

Even the earlier barn-door quotation is international. From Britain, Crystal offers: “It’s no good locking the stable door after the horse is stolen.”

But if the horse were stollen (from the German for a rich fruit loaf), it would count as “a dainty, a delicacy,” and if it bore a brand, we’d be right back where we started with Katy and Russell.

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