Mon époux

Last Friday, I celebrated my third wedding anniversary! It’s hard to believe that it’s already been three years since that magic day. We shared a wonderful evening of fun and food to celebrate, but this article isn’t about that at all. Those of you who know me well won’t be too surprised to learn that my anniversary celebration eventually turned to a discussion of linguistics and etymology. “Etymology on your anniversary?!” Yes, yes … I know. I’m a geek. I admit it. That’s the real testament to our marriage, after all: that my incessant droning about language and history hasn’t resulted in divorce proceedings!

So how did this subject even come up? Well, it has to do with the French word for husband. (See? There is a connection!) The French have a couple of ways to say the word — mari or époux — and it’s the latter that sparked the idea for this article. You see, while the English word “husband” doesn’t come from French (like “wife,” it’s from Old English), the general term for the person you’re married to (your “spouse“) does. 

In fact, “spouse” is one of many English words that students of French often don’t recognize immediately as being of French origin, but they should. “French-English” words in this particular group usually begin with an “s” and correspond to French words that begin with “é.” Why is that? In a nutshell, the Old French versions of these words usually began with “es,” but that “post-vowel s” became unvoiced over the centuries and was eventually replaced with an accent aigu (“acute accent“) on the preceding “e.” (You might recall something about that from this article about the circumflex.) But why does the English word still have the “s” and no “e”? Well, at the time of the Norman Conquest, the phonetic evolution of no longer pronouncing the “post-vowel s” had not yet occurred in France, so speakers of Norman French who came to England still pronounced it. Old French evolved along one path on one side of the Channel, where they stopped pronouncing the “s,” and Anglo-Norman (later Middle English) evolved along another path on the other side, where they stopped pronouncing the “e” and eventually dropped it from the spelling of the word.

Sometimes, the connection between the English word and the French cognate is obvious. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit more attenuated and can be a pleasant surprise when you first encounter it. I’ll give you a list of my favorite examples, with Modern English on the left, Modern French on the right, and Old French in the center.

Here are some straightforward cases that generally follow the “rule”:

screen ← escran → écran
probably by way of the Old North French “escren”

scrivener ← escrivain → écrivain
cf., scribe

strangle ← estrangler → étrangler

student ← estudient→ étudiant
cf., study and étudier, study and étude

scarf ← escherpe → écharpe
probably by way of the Old North French “escarpe”

scallion ← eschaloigne → échalote
by way of the Old North French “escaloigne”
cf., shallot, by way of the Modern French “échalote”

scarlet ← escarlate → écarlate

scale ← escale → écaille
in the sense of scales on a fish or reptile

stable ← estable → étable
cf., establish and établir,
establishment and établissement

squire ← esquier → écuyer
cf., esquire

strange ← estrange → étrange
cf., stranger and étranger;
cf., estrange as a modern English verb

spine ← espine → épine
in the sense of a thorn

spy ← espier → épier
as a verb, cf. the noun spy and espion

stage ← estage → étage

stuff ← estoffe → étoffe
cf. étouffer (“to suffocate”)

and my favorite:

squirrel ← escurel → écureuil

© 2013 Kris Albert Lee
© 2013 Kris Albert Lee

A few cases where the French kept the “post-vowel s” anyway:

stomach ← estomac → estomac

spirit ← espirit → esprit

slave ← esclave → esclave

scallop ← escalope → escalope
The Modern French sense is different
(like “scallop”/”escalope” in Modern English).

sturgeon ← esturjon → esturgeon

skirmish ← escarmouche → escarmouche
Another example of the retention of the “s” in modern French,
this one has a complex story, too. “Skirmish” was later influenced
by a separate verb, “skirmysshen,” which came from
the Old French “eskirmir,”  meaning “to fence”
(cf., “escrime” in Modern French).


A few cases where the English kept the “e” anyway:

escape ← eschaper → échapper
from the Old North French “escaper”

exchange ← eschangier → échanger
The English actually added back
the “x” from the original Latin.

astonish ← estoner → étonner
The English actually converted the “e” to an “a.”

In keeping with the theme … when distant cousins get married:
While French is classified as a Romance language, it was heavily influenced by the Germanic language of the Franks. As a result, there are often English words that resemble French words as much because of a common Germanic root as because of the importation of a Norman French word in the 11th century. A few of our words today fall into this category.

Frankish costumes, A.D. 400-600
Frankish costumes, A.D. 400-600

spell ← espeller → épeler
This verb likely came from the Old English “spellian,”
meaning to “speak or tell,” but was influenced
by the Old French “espeller,” which also came

from the same Germanic root as “spellian.”

stall ← estal → étal
In the sense of a stand for selling things, this
word came directly from Old French. In the sense of
a place in a stable for holding animals, it comes from
the Old English 
“steall,” which itself comes from the same
Germanic root 
as the Old French “estal,” meaning a stable,
which bring us to …

stallion ← estalon → étalon
The Old French word came from the Frankish word “stal,”
meaning “stable,” referring to a male horse kept there
to service the mares.

Which brings us back to the star of the show …

spouse ← spus → époux (épouse, fem.)
Interestingly, in the case of “spouse,” the French
didn’t even originally have an “e” in the word. Somewhere
along the line, one was added to form the verb “espouser,”
which in turn gave us the modern words
“épouser,” “époux,” and “épouse.”
(Cf., the Modern English verb “espouse”
which preserves the post-vowel s.)

So there you have a nice little survey of one group of French-English words that you’ll never again fail to recognize. Just remember the rule: if a French word begins with “é,” try replacing the “é” with an “s.” You might find an English word you never knew was there!

P.S. —  Sometimes the connection between words in this group is very distant. Etymology is complicated, after all. The rule still works pretty well in practice, though:

state ← status → estat → état
“State” entered Old English directly from
the Latin “status,” but some later meanings of the word did
come with the later importation of the Old French “estat”
(cf., estate).

school ← scol ← scola →  escole → école
“School” entered Old English directly from the Latin
“scola” (itself from the Greek “skhole”), which was
also the source for the Old French “escole.”

sponge ← spongia → esponge → éponge
“Sponge” entered Old English directly from the Latin “spongia,”
the same source for the Old French “esponge.”

squadron ← squadrone → escadron
“Squadron” entered Modern English from Italian in the 1560s,
and “escadron” entered Middle French almost a century earlier.

scum ← schume ← *skuma →  escume → écume
“Scum” entered Middle English from the Middle Dutch “schume.”
The Old French “escume” originated from the same Germanic root.

© 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

5 thoughts on “Mon époux

  1. Of course, it’s also interesting to note that in regard to “épouse,” the modern English word “espouse” has kept the leading “e,” while the word’s meaning has drifted solely into the figurative realm of union: To choose, to make a cause one’s own, or to be a supporter of an idea.

    1. Yes indeed! I wish I could drone on and on in a coherent way about these things in a blog post, but I fear I’d lose my readers after a page or so. Ha ha. I will have students one day, though, who will be trapped and have to listen ad nauseum. Thanks for raising the point; I will add a reference to it!

      On a related note, I only obliquely reference it by adding in the (cf., XX) notations (and in my last article about the circumflex, I discuss it a bit) but there is an interesting phonetic evolution at play on the French side as well. While the post-vowel s become unvoiced in many words, other words from the same family maintained it in French. Does it prove how geeky I am that I am excited to start discussing this in linguistics classes this fall?

      Thanks for the compliment, by the way. I’m so glad that someone else enjoys this kind of post!

  2. Thank you very much for this great summary! It’s been quite a while that I’ve been wanting to create a list like this but yours is so much more complete than I could have imagined mine. And with all the explanation on top of it – just great! Same goes for your “petit chapeau” article ! Do you know if there is a linguistical term for this?
    All the best, Michael Broermann 🙂

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