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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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

Second Breakfast

The inspiration for this post — believe it or not — was an ultrasound I had yesterday. Don’t worry: It turns out that I’m not pregnant nor do I have an appendicitis or a hernia. What I feared might be a more serious condition was, in fact, just an infection from a ninja spider bite. But that’s a story for another day, because you want to know what in the world that has to do with “second breakfast.” Continue reading Second Breakfast

“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

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.

Good Feast!

Today was September 29: Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael. In America, we don’t generally make a big deal about the feast days of saints. There are exceptions, of course, the most well-known in America being Saint Patrick’s Day, when we wear green and get drunk, all while pretending to be Irish … and perhaps the Feast of Saint Francis, when you might take your pooch to church for a blessing even if you haven’t darkened the church door for a few months. It was not until I met my French husband, though, that  I realized how feast days are still very current in the French consciousness, even if they have largely—if not entirely—lost their religious connotation. As soon I had a few French friends on Facebook, I started to see “bonne fête” popping up in my newsfeed—not thanking someone for a great party the night before, but sending good wishes on the feast day of the Saint that bears his or her name. It’s a nice tradition, and one that I’ve adopted with my French family and friends.

Continue reading Good Feast!

You don’t say!

Registering for my fall classes this morning got me thinking about what it is that I really love about learning a foreign language. It’s certainly not conjugating the pluperfect of the subjunctive mood! Instead, it’s linguistics and etymology: how we say the things we say, and why it is we say them that way. Today’s musing:

pas

For anyone with even a basic knowledge of French, “pas” is a pretty easy word. It means “not” … right? Well, I’ll get back to that in a minute but, more importantly for now, “pas” also means “step” — as in the motion we make when we place one foot in front of the other. Hence, we have the expression “faux pas” — one that we’ve adopted directly into English — meaning a mistake or, more precisely, a “false step.” So, how exactly did a word that means “step” also come to be the most common word in French to mean “not”?

Continue reading You don’t say!