When did East Africans become the latest hip party accessory, I wondered.
Then the penny dropped.
A sommelier is a wine waiter, one specially trained in the pairing of food and wine. More recently, there are tea sommeliers, beer sommeliers and honey sommeliers. I have even read about water sommeliers, but I hope this concept has died under the weight of its own pretentiousness.
If you're trying to impress your friends with your highfalutin party plans, I suggest you learn how to pronounce the words properly.
In French, sommelier is pronounced
somm 'll YAYAnd I believe that is true for Canadian English as well, though apparently not for my fellow traveller on the streetcar. Some Canadians may stress the first syllable rather than the last.
I was surprised to see that Merriam-Webster lists the only American pronunciation as
suh m'll YAYand Oxford UK dictionaries as
somm ELL yaybut the British have a long history of stressing the wrong syllable in words borrowed from French.
How do YOU pronounce "sommelier"?
Back in the Middle Ages, the person in charge of the wine in a great French household was called a bouteiller, literally the guy in charge of the bottles. We merrily borrowed this as with so many French words designating the high life after the Norman Conquest, and it became our word "butler". But while "butler" survived in English, bouteiller did not survive in French.
The word sommelier at this point had been around for a while in French. It started out with the Latin word sagma (a packsaddle). This morphed, by way of saugmarius (a pack animal), into somerier (a driver of pack animals), and then into sommelier (person in charge of the baggage).
But a sommelier wasn't just any old mule driver cum baggage handler. At about the time bouteiller was dying out, the sommelier was the officer in charge of the baggage when the royal court was travelling. Inevitably every wealthy household wanted a sommelier in charge of their household goods. Wine, as always in France, was considered particularly important, so soon a sommelier was the guy in charge of the wine. We borrowed it from the French in the 19th century.
I would say that the word has been in English long enough, and has become frequent enough, especially since the 70s, that it does not need to be italicized.