A while back, I posted about how much of the English language comes from French. Perhaps surprisingly, more English vocabulary comes from French than from any other language source, even Anglo-Saxon—some 30% in fact. Speaking English words of French origin doesn’t make us French speakers, of course, but stumbling across these cognates can be pretty useful if you’re in a French class … or even trying to decipher a French menu. Being an etymology nerd myself (and inspired by my blogger friend over at Le mot du (bon)jour), I decided to create a new “column” on je parle américain: the French English Word of the Week. Every week or so, I’ll write a short post about an ordinary English word that we inherited from French. Sometimes, the French and English words will have exactly the same meanings. Sometimes, though, they’ll be faux amis (“false friends”), because the words have evolved differently over time. Those can be the most interesting!
So, this week’s French English word? Given the record-breaking cold temps affecting many of my readers, I’ve decided to kick things off with:
Everybody knows what a chimney is, of course. In its primary sense, chimney means “a vertical structure incorporated into a building and enclosing a flue or flues that carry off smoke; especially : the part of such a structure extending above a roof.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
“Chimney” comes to us from the Anglo-Norman chiminee ← from the Old French cheminée ← from Late Latin caminata ← from Latin caminus ← from Greek kaminos, meaning “furnace.”
In American English, we use the word almost exclusively for the structures that carry off smoke from our homes. We generally call the industrial versions or the versions on steam locomotives and steamships “smokestacks.” In England, by contrast, such smokestacks are often called chimneys and, in some English dialects, chimney can also mean a “fireplace or hearth,” especially a large one, like those found in old castles.
Modern French also uses cheminée to describe all of these things: a chimney, a smokestack, or a fireplace. For an American (if not for a Brit), that can certainly be a little confusing. If you hear a French person talking today about his Valentine’s evening spent in front of the cheminée, don’t automatically conjure up the image of a couple drinking wine up on the rooftop. This is Paris and that could be incredibly romantic but, more likely than not, they were just cuddling in front of the fireplace.
Now … it’s cold out there! Go build a fire in that cheminée and stay warm!
P.S.—A note on chemin :
Amateur linguist that I am, and knowing just enough French to make me dangerous, I initially wondered if the French word cheminée derived from the word chemin, meaning “way” or “path.” It would make sense, I thought, seeing that the chimney is the path the smoke takes to exit. It was a promising theory, but obviously not the right one. Chemin doesn’t have an etymological link at all with cheminée. Chemin, as it turns out, comes from an old Gaulish word.
P.S.—A note on poêle :
Although “kaminos,” the Greek root of chimney/cheminée, means “furnace,” neither French nor English use the word to describe an enclosed heated space of that sort. We use “furnace” or “stove” or “oven,” and the French use “chaudière” or “poêle” or “four.”
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved