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.  Continue reading Mon époux

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French Kiss: Don’t Forget Your Galoshes

From the 1995 Lawrence Kasdan romantic comedy French Kiss
starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline

This might come as a surprise to you but, before today, the French didn’t even have an officially-sanctioned word for one of their most famous romantic exports:

French Kissing

That’s right. The very practice that returning World War I soldiers nicknamed after the French has only just now gotten its own entry in the French dictionary. This racy new vocabulary word?

galocher

Continue reading French Kiss: Don’t Forget Your Galoshes

Le petit chapeau

Disclaimer: I’m not a linguist (yet) so, if you are one, please be gentle in your reactions if I’ve gotten something completely wrong …

As English speakers, one of the first things we notice about French is the widespread use of diacritical marks — or “accents” to be less linguistic about it. For students of the language (native speakers and non-native speakers alike) they can sometimes be the bane our existence. Accents obviously aren’t necessary — we don’t really use them in English, after all* — but they serve important functions in the languages that do use them. Sometimes, they denote a change in the pronunciation of the underlying letter. In French, for example, ça and ca don’t sound the same. Sometimes, though, accents don’t change the pronunciation at all; instead, they serve an orthographic (spelling) function to distinguish homophones. For example, la and là sound exactly the same in French but have entirely different meanings. Even though modern French is full of accents (the accent aigu, the accent grave, the tréma, etc.), they were introduced relatively late to the language. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many diacritical marks in a text from the Middle Ages. So what explains their introduction? Well, a comprehensive account of the evolution of French accents is thankfully far too complex to go into here, but I do want to talk about one in particular that has an interesting story and implications for English-speaking students of French:

le petit chapeau … the little hat … the circumflex Continue reading Le petit chapeau

“He took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”

I’m a nerd.

Today, I watched the season one finale of GleeAs you probably all know, Glee is a musical comedy television show about a fictional high school glee club in small-town Ohio. I’ll admit it — I’m a fan. It’s kitschy and the music is almost always top notch — especially when Mercedes is belting it out. Anyway, during the season finale, the glee club ended up choosing a medley of Journey songs for their number at the Midwest regional competition. Here’s how they opened their performance:

Not bad, huh?

They closed with “Don’t Stop Believin'” — of course. It was their anthem, after all. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good YouTube clip of that part of the performance.) Anyway …”What,” I’m sure you’re wondering, “besides being such a Glee fan that I’m paying homage to it on my blog, makes me such a nerd?”  Well, as soon as I saw Will Schuester write the word “JOURNEY” on his big flipchart in the rehearsal room at the beginning of that episode, two things immediately came to mind: Continue reading “He took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”

Labor Disputes, Wooden Shoes, and Italian Bread

Today’s “French English” word is “sabotage.” Everyone, I’m sure, knows what sabotage means: as a verb, it means to deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct something; as a noun, it’s the act of doing that. But where does the word come from? As it turns out, “sabotage” has a direct relation to wooden shoes. “Wooden shoes?” you ask. Why, yes. Here’s how …

We generally associate wooden shoes with the Dutch, of course, who are often stereotypically depicted wearing them while picking tulips in front of their windmills. They weren’t the only people, however, who traditionally wore these clunky things; in fact, they were common among peasants all over Europe, including France, where they were called “sabots.” Eventually, sabot also became a slang term for the poor country folk who, during France’s Industrial Revolution, were brought into the cities to work in the factories when city dwellers went on strike. The verb “saboter” had originally been used in French to mean “to knock or tap with the foot” or “to walk noisily,” from the sound the wooden shoes would make on cobblestones, but with the arrival of these sabots in the factories, the word took on a new meaning. Because the sabot-wearing peasants weren’t familiar with the modern machinery, saboter became slang for “to bungle a job” and “sabotage” became the slang term for their poor quality work. Every strike has its end, though, and the city-dwelling workforce eventually returned to the factories. But they’d apparently learned a new bargaining tactic from the sabotsContinue reading Labor Disputes, Wooden Shoes, and Italian Bread

Make Yourself Comfortable

One of the “French English” words that I love most is “comfortable” because … well, like most people, I like being comfortable in a comfortable place. That’s one of the great things about the word — it can describe both someone who’s in a state of physical or mental comfort and the thing or condition that makes them that way. “I’m so comfortable when I’m lying in my comfortable bed!” Like that. Little did I know when I came to France, though, the French equivalent “confortable” doesn’t work quite the same way …

As much as I like being comfortable, I like to know that the people around me are comfortable, too. I’m almost nebby about it … “Is everything alright? Are you okay? Can I get you something? Are you comfortable?” Whether it was on the sofa while watching a movie, in a train on our vacation, or during a quick aside when meeting my family or friends, I was constantly asking my husband Michel if he was comfortable …

Ça va? Tu es confortable?

On the outside, Michel was telling me that everything was fine but, on the inside, he was apparently laughing at me. Continue reading Make Yourself Comfortable

Truffles: mushrooms, chocolate, and … dogs?

For the last post before my CELTA English teaching course begins Monday, I thought I’d write about a few relevant “French English” words : student, study, review, professor. Then a friend shared an interesting article with me, and I decided to go with truffle instead—probably more engaging and certainly more enticing than a discussion about homework!

Truffle has two very distinct meanings in English, of course. It can refer to the very tasty and very expensive mushroom that grows in forests between the leaf litter and the soil and gets sniffed out by special truffle-hunting pigs and dogs. If you have a sweet tooth like me, though, the word probably initially conjures up images of those decadent little chocolate confections.

The word truffle (or “truffe” in Modern French) comes from the Old French “trufe” by way of the Old Provençal “trufa,” which itself comes from the Vulgar Latin “tufera“—a dialectal variant of the Latin “tuber,” meaning “lump.”

black Périgord truffles © 2012 Reuters
Italian white truffles

When you look at a truffle of the fungal variety, you can certainly see why it takes its name from the Latin word for lump. It’s definitely not a pretty thing, but the taste … well, it’s simply amazing. There is a reason, after all, why the black Périgord sells for as much as $800 a pound and the white variety sells for as much as $2,000 a pound! Continue reading Truffles: mushrooms, chocolate, and … dogs?

Suspense. It’s French … sort of.

SUSPENSE

a : mental uncertainty : anxiety
   b : pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome <a novel of suspense>

— from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Suspense is a “French English” word that has a few meanings in our language but is used most often to describe a sense of nervous anticipation, whether the circumstances involve dread or eagerness. For instance, we feel suspense when we’re waiting for someone to make a decision that’s out of our hands :

“Oh, please, please! Let them make a decent offer on my apartment so I can finally sell it!”

“When am I going to hear back from the prefecture? And what am I going to do if they end up refusing to renew my visa?”  

But we can also feel it when we’re watching a television show and the episode ends with a dramatic event, while leaving the story unresolved :

“What in the world are they going to do now? Is he alive or dead? And what am I supposed to do with myself until next week?!”

                                                              … or when we’re reading a book, the chapter ends with a cliffhanger, and despite the fact that we have to get up early the next morning, we just have to start the next one. 

“Suspense” came into Middle English from Anglo-French, one of those lexical imports during the first few centuries after the Norman Conquest. Its first recorded English use was in 1306 in the legal term “en suspens” meaning “not executed, unfulfilled.” By 1440, the word had also developed the sense of a “state of mental uncertainty” … because, I guess, whatever legal judgment that was “en suspens” had not yet been carried out and the future was stressfully unclear. The Anglo-French “suspens” itself derives from the Old French “suspens,” from the Latin  “suspensus” (the past participle of the verb “suspendere“) meaning “delayed.” Continue reading Suspense. It’s French … sort of.

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:

chimney

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.

Continue reading Got a chimney? It’s French.

How much French do you speak?

Just the other day, I was watching my latest favorite television series, Downton Abbey, and I heard one of the characters use a French word I’d never heard used before in an English sentence: “She’s found her métier—farm laboring.” That struck me as the height of pretension, but then again, it is a show about English aristocrats during the First World War. In any case, métier means “profession, occupation, or trade.” I knew this word from my French classes, of course, but I never knew that we used it in English. I guess being a country boy from South Carolina, I wasn’t high-class enough to have trotted it out in my own conversations. It got me thinking, though, about how much French there actually is in English. As it turns out, between the recent imports and what we inherited from the Normans, there’s a lot more than you might imagine.

Recent Imports

Métier is one of those French words that entered the English lexicon in recent centuries through literature, the arts, and other cultural exchanges. Because we “adopted” them directly into English, they’ve preserved their unmistakable character as Gallicisms even when we don’t pronounce them exactly right. Originally, these words were used primarily by the upper echelons of society (Look, there’s another one!), those privileged enough to have spent their time reading, visiting art exhibits, and traveling to France. As such, although they may be recognizable by a broad segment of today’s English-speaking population, they aren’t used in the normal course by most of us … except perhaps when we want to sound chichi.

used under license from CartoonStock
used under license from CartoonStock

Continue reading How much French do you speak?