Got a chimney? It’s French.

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.

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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

7 thoughts on “Got a chimney? It’s French.

  1. Etymological? Oh Mikey, you are SO getting ready to teach English as a second language!
    This was such a great post (as usual) and I love how you dissect things. Also your blogs are raised a couple of notches because the photos are beautiful and go with the writing so well. (Especially love the metro blog). All this and the comparisons are great for future teaching! Now, if you can make GRAMMAR as interesting as you have past blog subjects – you will be doing wonders!!!
    I need to make you that martini!! Wait! I need Gin or Vodka. Which do you prefer?

  2. Great post, and great topic! I feel honored to be mentioned in your post and to have inspired this topic. I include faux-amis too, and I know I will not run out ever! They mostly come from my daily life speaking French with (and teaching it to) my American husband, who so often asks: “Why??” and then we look it up…
    That is a confusing word; the Canadian make the distinction of the “fireplace” with the word “foyer” if I recall. It was the word of choice for a client who manufactured portable gaz fireplaces (and these would definitely not include a chimney on your roof ;-). Great job!

    1. Thanks Nadia! No problem for the mention of your blog. I just have to say again that your blog is so well done and is very inspiring to me. I’ve even thought about creating a similar kind of blog for francophones learning English once I start teaching. I know these kinds of blogs already exist, but none feature my signature blend of French grammatical errors and Seinfeldesque sense of humor! 🙂 It could be an “adjunct” site to je parle américain. For now, I’ll stick with my usual anglophone audience and tell them all about the “French English” words they say all the time. Like you, I find myself in situations with Michel where we’re trying to explain ourselves in the other’s language; I’ll just have an epiphany all of a sudden when I hear a French word and realize that it’s the origin of an English one! It seems so obvious at the time, but I never would have put it together ahead of time.

      Again, thanks for the compliment!

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