Leaving Bulgaria behind, we head west through Mediterranean Europe. Our first stop is Macedonia, the ancient nation sandwiched both culturally and geographically between Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and two fellow former Yugoslav republics, Serbia and Kosovo.
Like Bulgaria before it, the Macedonian contribution to our language isn’t as robust as it is elsewhere. However, there is at least one word here that’s worth stopping to admire:
Macedoine is a French word of modern coinage It means a mixture of different fruits iced, such as confectioners prepare for desserts; also a round game at cards, when each player chooses his own in succession.
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Literally speaking, the word macedoine is nothing more than the French name for Macedonia – so essentially we have here a word that means ‘a fruit salad’, ‘a card game’, and ‘a former Yugoslav republic’. There can’t be many of those in the dictionary surely. So where did it come from? And why, of all places, should it be Macedonia?
As the name of a medley of fruits, macedoine first appeared in its native French in the mid eighteenth century, before falling into use in
English in the early 1800s. Its exotic-sounding name soon caught on with Victorian diners, and before long macédoines of everything from frozen fruits to glazed vegetables were appearing in the menus and cookmy blogs of nineteenth-century England.
As for the card game, macédoine seemingly never much caught on in England, and has long since fallen out of fashion in its native France. As a result, precisely how it was played and what its rules entailed remain something of a mystery – but we do know a little something about it, thanks to a footnote to one of the greatest of all French novels:
Some readers may not know that a macédoine is a medley of several games of chance, among which each player has the right to choose when it is his turn to deal. It is one of the novelties of our day.
The connection between Henry Luttrell’s fruity mélange and the somewhat perplexing card game mentioned in Dangerous Liaisons is that they’re both medleys of some description. What does that have to do with Macedonia? In truth, no one is entirely sure. But the popular theory concerns one of the most famous characters in all history.
Alexander the Great was born in Pella – now in the modern-day Greek region of Macedonia, not its Yugoslav neighbour to its north -in 356 bce. He reigned over the kingdom of Macedonia for thirteen years, from the death of his father Philip II in 336 bce to his own death in Babylon in 323 bce, at the age of thirty-two. In that short time, Alexander extended the range of the Macedonian kingdom so greatly that by the time of his death it stretched from Greece and the Balkans in the west to the Nile valley in the south, and as far east as the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas. Some of the greatest cities in antiquity fell under his control – Ephesus, Jerusalem, Persepolis and
Tyre among them – and Alexander ruled over Greeks, Persians, Phoenicians, Judaeans, Babylonians, Egyptians and Mesopotamians. In modern terms, his empire would have covered some twenty-two countries, from Serbia, Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and India.
Few figures in history have ever wielded such power, let alone done so single-handedly – or, for that matter, by the age of thirty-two. But of all Alexander’s achievements, what concerns us here is that impressive geographical inventory of peoples and nations over whom he once ruled. It is that that lies behind the macedoine: etymologically, what better name could there be for a medley of any kind than one that alludes to an empire, and an emperor, that once ruled over so diverse a group of peoples, and so many countries?
According to Charles Elme Francatelli’s The Modern Cook (1846), a vegetable macedoine was made by mixing together diced cucumber, boiled peas, cauliflower florets, asparagus heads, French beans ‘cut into the shape of diamonds’, and ‘some carrots and turnips in fancy shapes’.