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Mind your language

Why would a Danish queen say 'basta'?

It's all in the card game

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

My husband heard me in the kitchen exclaim: ‘What would I do without you?’ He curiously imagined I was referring to him. But it was of you, dear readers, that I spoke, and in particular Elizabeth Maynard from Oxford, who wrote explaining the use of the Italian word basta by Danes. Well, how was I to know?

I’d supposed that Queen Alexandra, who used the word in 1901 (Mind your language, 24 May), had picked it up from the Italian opera. Not at all, Mrs Maynard tells me, since her own Danish mother’s elder sister — born in 1893 — used it too. She would rap the table, to end arguments among the youngsters, and say sternly: ‘Og dermed basta’ (‘And with that basta’). Professor M.J. Connolly, of Boston College, kindly wrote to say much the same, with parallels in German and Swedish.


Mrs Maynard wondered whether the Danes had picked up basta from the game of l’hombre or hombre that they played centuries ago, in which the ace of clubs is called Basto. Here we reach a pleasant complication. Bastos are ‘clubs’ on Spanish playing cards, in Italian bastoni. But the Italian name for clubs in our ‘French’ pack of cards is fiori ‘flowers’, or in Spanish tréboles ‘clovers’, like the French name trèfle (in the singular). In hombre the ace of bastos (clubs by our reckoning) was el Basto in Spanish, Bastone in Italian.

From the mid-17th century, England had a craze for ombre (or l’hombre or omber, as we also spelt it), until quadrille superseded it from about 1725. The dramatist George Etherege rhymed ombre with incumber, though the general pronunciation rhymed with sombre, which is not how Spaniards say hombre.

In Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, in the incomprehensible game of ombre, Belinda played the ace of clubs, the Basto. I’d thought Eliot did something similar in The Waste Land, but the card he names is the three of staves (equivalent to bastos in the Spanish pack, though in the poem turned up by Madame Sosotris from her tarot pack).

None of this card-play quite affects our basta, even if some people derive both basta and basto circuitously from Greek bastazein, ‘to carry’. Of this, basta!


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