cumquat compote

Choral conductors often use tongue-twisters to warm up singers’ mouths and brain. Last week (in a Zoom session) the conductor of one choir I sing in presented one which a chorister had suggested. He had been visiting his mother who presented him with a jar of compote she had made from cumquats she had grown: cumquat compote. Even while I was trying to concentrate on singing that, I realised that compote is – literally – compost.

French uses the letter ô (o-circumflex) in a number of ways, one of which is to indicate that a letter has been dropped from the pronunciation and spelling of a word – most often s. Thus a hôtel is a hostel, a bête is a beast and a pâté is a paste. So cômpote is compost (it’s also related to composite). The use of circumflexes is inconsistent in English words derived from French. The more English a word has become, the less likely it is to use the diacritic: hotel and compote are now English words, pâté probably loses the circumflex in informal contexts but keeps the acute for the pronunciation (though examples exist on the internet of every possible combination), and bête is still entirely French. (Each word derives from Latin, which has the s in each.)

(Apparently, kumquat is the wider-used spelling, reflecting the Chinese original, but I spell in Australian English.)


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