When you have visitors, you see things in a new way or, sometimes, for the first time. I recently enjoyed taking my friend and her daughters around the city. One event we were excited about was Italy Visits You, an initiative by the Italian tourist board to promote the regions and food of that so delightfully nearby country.  We arrived at the appointed place when things were just getting under way. I think it was in the advertising for this event that I first noticed the word échantillon, "sample." We looked forward to the promised free samples of Italian food and wine, but there was only--though delicious-- a taste of the risotto that had just been made in a cooking demonstration.

A couple of days later we went to a museum I hadn't yet visited, La Musée des Tissus. It has an extraordinary textile collection, some examples going back to the third, fourth and fifth centuries. Textiles are important here because Lyon was famous, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for its silk. But the museum has many fabrics from many eras and places.  There was also a special exhibition about eighteenth-century costume, with men's and women's clothes worked in intricate stitching and embroidery. And here were échantillons again, in fat books of fabric samples, myriad swatches of hand-embroidered or woven fabrics, in a level of craftsmanship (and needlewomanship) rarely seen today.

After our guests had gone, I returned to a market I'd discovered with them, along the main Boulevard on the Croix Rousse hill, selling bargain housewares and clothes. Here I found a man offering half-price Mephisto shoes, and in each was a label in three languages: échantillon VRP, the equivalent in German, "salesman sample." (I'm not sure whence the VRP.)

Echantillon seems a poetical kind of word for the rather prosaic idea it represents. Now, of course, I turn to the French historical dictionary. It comes from older forms eschandillon, escandelon, derived from probable *eschandil (corresponding to ancient provençal escandil, to measure the capacity of) which is attested in the verb eschandiller, "to verify merchants' measures," used in the region of--Lyon!  This group of words came from Latin scandaculum, "scale," from scandere, "to climb," in the same family as scala, ladder. (Which explains why "ladder" and "scale" are the same word in French--échelle. And the origin of the old-fashioned "to scale" meaning "to climb.") Echantillon originally was related to weights and measures, but gradually shifted to mean "part of a whole, example, sample."

And I like the sound of it, the way it makes me think of enchantment (enchanter) and sparkle (étincellement) even though it has nothing to do with either of them. Although some of those fabric swatches were enchanting, and sparkled with threads of gold and silver.