The Grammarphobia Blog

Vaganza: a mini-extravaganza?

Q: You’re pretty good on negative words like “gruntled” that don’t have positive versions. How about extraordinary words that don’t have ordinary versions? For example, “extravaganza” when a single “vaganza” just isn’t enough.

A: Just when we think we’ve been asked everything under the sun! Unfortunately, you won’t find the word “vaganza” in standard dictionaries (too bad!), though that won’t stop you from getting thousands of hits for it in Google searches.

We’ve seen it used as a synonym for “extravaganza” (“Home Vaganza: Home of Extravaganza Design”) as well as an oomphless version of it (“Just a regular vaganza”).

In fact, the prefix “extra-” (or at any rate its spelling) crept into “extravaganza” by the back door. Here’s the story.

Our word “extravaganza” was borrowed from the Italian estravaganza, which means oddness, peculiarity, or eccentricity of behavior—in other words, extravagance. Today, the Italian word is more commonly stravaganza.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, when English glommed onto the Italian estravaganza in the 18th century, it was “refashioned” into “extravaganza,” giving it the Latin prefix “extra-.”

It must have seemed natural to English speakers to begin the word with “extra-” rather than “estra-.”

The earlier words “extravagance” and “extravagant” had the “ex,” and so did the words they came from—the French extravagance and extravagant, and the medieval Latin noun and adjective extravagantem.

Since the Italian alphabet has no “x,” Italian words prefixed with the Latin extra- are instead spelled estra-. So you might say that when English borrowed estravaganza, it gave it back the “x.”

The OED says that in its original English sense, “extravaganza” was “bombastic extravagance of language or behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a review in a 1754 issue of the journal Connoisseur: “Thalia … was … with difficulty restrained from falling into ridiculous drolleries, and what our author calls extravaganzas in her manner.”

A few decades later, according to the OED, the word was used to mean “a composition, literary, musical or dramatic, of an extravagant or fantastic character.”

Oxford’s earliest citation for this sense of “extravaganza” is from Thomas James Mathias’s satirical poem The Pursuits of Literature (1797).

In a footnote, Mathias identified a now forgotten writer, Maurice Morgan, as “author of the pleasant Extravaganza on the Courage of Sir John Falstaff.”

Matthew Arnold used the word in the same sense in 1873, when he wrote in his essay Literature and Dogma: “The difference between the grandeur of an extravaganza and the grandeur of the sea or the sky.”

Nowadays we also use “extravaganza” loosely for any over-the-top production or display, like a wildly extravagant party. (We’ve found no evidence, though, of a boring event being described as a “subvaganza.”)

By the way, the literal sense of “extravagant”—wandering out of bounds, straying beyond the limits—is reflected in the medieval Latin verb it came from, extravagari.

The Latin roots are extra- (beyond or outside) and vagari (to wander). Although you won’t find the noun “vaganza” in dictionaries, something resembling it is cited in the OED:

In her book The Wandering Scholars (1927), Helen Jane Waddell coined the term “vagantes” to mean “the scholar monks who travelled about Europe in the Middle Ages.”

Perhaps medieval monks who wandered out of bounds could be called “extravagantes.”

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