Tuesday, January 4, 2011

French Onion Soup and the Etymology of "Companion"

(Note: Yeah, it's been a long time since I posted something to this blog. What can I say? Blogging is relentless, and I'm... well, I guess I'm relentful. But over the past few months, some of my students mentioned they had wandered by the site and encouraged me to post more. So here's something I had written for one of my classes. Enjoy...)

“The bread bowl,” I tell my wife, “is one of the greatest inventions ever.”

She looks up quizzically from her Asian Chicken Salad as I continue in between slurps of my French Onion Soup. “It’s not just the delicious collision of the soup and the sourdough bread that I respect. It’s the efficiency of it all: you actually get to eat the container in which the soup is served. The container becomes part of the meal. How ingenious is that? ”

We’re sitting in a booth at Panera on a busy Saturday afternoon as I make this observation. We’re out running on errands alone, without our twin sons—in fact, we were buying decorations for their tenth birthday party— and we decided to stop for a quick bite. And the introduction of the meal suddenly transforms this afternoon of errands into an actual date.

Parents have to do that once in a while, you know. It’s nothing personal: we love our kids, but occasionally, we have to remind ourselves that we’re not just parents. And so, while eating our meals, my wife and I catch up on a few things. We chat, not just about the sheer awesomeness of bread bowls but about the kids’ upcoming party, curious stories from our jobs, something funny she saw on TV. We laugh. We enjoy each other’s company. And I realize it’s not the bread bowl that makes the afternoon special; it’s the company.

As it turns out, the word “companion” actually involves bread. Like French Onion soup meeting a bread bowl, the word “companion” is actually a combination of two Latin words: the prefix “com,” meaning “with”; and “panis,” meaning “bread.” (The name “Panera” comes from the same root.) Thus, a “companion” is literally someone “to have bread with.”

“Have bread with”? What does that have to with companionship? Think about it: bread is not just one of the world’s most popular foods but also one of the oldest. As a result, over the years, it has come to represent not just a specific kind of food, but food in general.

So, if you hear someone in prayer saying “give us this day our daily bread,” he’s not asking for something onto which he can spread his peanut butter and Fluff. He’s talking about both physical and spiritual nourishment.

So if you think of bread symbolizing food in general, the etymology of “companion” makes sense. After all, you don’t want a share a meal with just anyone. Sharing a meal with someone suggests a level of familiarity and comfort. When you go into the cafeteria, you’ll want to eat with people you know, people you like.

Knowing the etymology of “companion” really helped me appreciate not just the word but also the importance of sharing a meal. Think about this the next time you’re at a restaurant with someone you love: what’s better—the food, or the company you’re keeping?