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Convivial: The Life of the Literary Party

With the holidays just around the corner, several words come to mind to describe the festive season. Joyous, autumnal, merry, and thankful are just a few. However, one less common word that seems most appropriate for this time of year is convivial.

Merriam-Webster defines convivial as “relating to, occupied with, or fond of feasting, drinking, and good company”. The Collins English Dictionary goes even deeper, defining it as “sociable; jovial”. Based on definition alone, it seems convivial could easily be substituted for a multitude of other holiday terms. But unlike many other English words we’ve dissected here, its meaning has always been more or less the same.

Convivial originated in the late 1600s. Then, its meaning was “pertaining to a feast”. It was derived from the Latin words convivium, which simply meant “a feast”, and convivere, which means “to carouse together”. By the 18th century, the definition shifted to the simpler “sociable”.

For the next two centuries, convivial remained the word of choice for describing exciting affairs. Whether speaking about a convivial party host, the convivial occasion of receiving a letter by post, or the convivial design of a welcome mat at one’s front door, there was no shortage of ways to breathe delightfulness into an occasion with the word.

But soon, convivial, which has a slightly tricky pronunciation [\kən-‘viv-yəl], started being replaced with simpler alternatives. The literary world held onto convivial, but words like gregarious, congenial, outgoing, friendly, and of course, sociable, became the favorites to describe wonderful occasions. Perhaps this was due to the context in which the word was used.

In application, convivial could be used to describe people, places, and things. However, when describing special instances like holiday parties or get-togethers, revelers often speak about the life of the party. John was such as convivial host. At some point, it became easier to describe John as gregarious or friendly instead. And, like so many English words, convivial slowly faded to the background, becoming a word favored only by writers hoping to spice up their language.

If you look, you can still find the word in use, often regarding matters of food and drink. The Washington, D.C.-based eatery Convivial serves up French fare, and its tagline is “fond of feasting, drinking, and good company”; delicious food served with a side of literary education. There’s also a French butcher, Convivial, which specializes in cutting its meat into ultra-fine slices. And there’s the blog, Simply Convivial, which focuses on making homeschool education an enjoyable experience.

Though the masses may prefer simpler words, convivial’s spirit is still alive and well. It may not dominate everyday conversation, but it works beautifully on a restaurant marquee or in a butcher’s logo. When it’s time for a rousing feast, convivial is still the life of the party.

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Supersede
Mawkish
Portentous