Old blog and new

I am currently consolidating all my blog posts here on my website, on two separate blog pages. I'm shortly going to delete the old blog so it will no longer exist on blogspot.

This transitional message is on both blog pages of my website, "current blog" and "first blog." 

All the JUST A MOT posts are now saved here as a separate blog page: "first blog: JUST A MOT."  You can still read there about my linguistic adventures as I rediscovered French during my three years in the lovely city of Lyon.

If you followed me on blogspot, thank you!  I'm sorry that there isn't a similar "follow" function here yet. It should be available soon. In the meantime, do please check back regularly (my current blog has more frequent posts, or so I intend!).

I do so enjoy the conversation blogging affords! Thank you for being here. 


Lost, found, and moved!

Well, well. The last post was a year after the previous one. This post is more than a year after the last one. This does not look good at all!

I neglected to post for so long that when I tried to find this old blog, I couldn't; it seemed to have been lost or deleted or evaporated into the ether. So I just assumed it was no more…

Now I have found it and so I can officially announce the transition, just for the sake of that important if hackneyed concept "closure,"  and on the off chance that anyone is still out there.

For I have not been totally idle all this time.

I have set up a website which can be found here:


and there is a blog page on that site where I have posted the odd musing and wofflement:


It makes more sense for it to all be in one place, so I will henceforth be posting from there only.

I am not sure (sorry, still learning!) if there's a mechanism there for you to automatically be notified when a new post appears. But each time I post, I will mention it on my public facebook page:


(called in full Christine Whittemore Inscription and Such)  and also on twitter.

On the website blog, I am currently writing a lot about the imminent appearance of my novel, Inscription, because that is the exciting thing that is happening now.

But I intend (ha! road to hell, etc) to post pieces about various bookish and word-related and poetic things, about reading and writing and so forth.

So, see you there!  And thank you if you have been reading, and even more if you continue to do so….

Plus ça change....

....plus c'est la même chose.

It's still me. But a year (almost) since my last blog post. What excuse do I have? I just ran out of steam for blogging, I think, in the last of the three lovely years I spent in Lyon, France. The language became more familiar, so there was less bewilderment to write about. And then, suddenly, it was time to plan our departure, with all the ghastly logistics of moving.

I doubt there's anyone still out there at this point, but if there is, you may have noticed that the blog now has a very boring title, viz, my name. That's because I have no website and this is sort of instead of that.

Something exciting that's happened since I last posted is that a novel I wrote before going to France has now won an award and found a publisher. The book is called Inscription and it has won the Eludia Award. It will be published by Sowilo Press, an imprint of a foundation in Philadelphia called Hidden River Arts, which does wonderful work encouraging artists who are outside academia and the mainstream publishing world.

Since coming back to my home town I've attended two poetry events, and read a bit of my poetry at "open mic" sessions at both; which is coming full circle, in a way, as this is where I first read poetry aloud in public, as a member of the Young Arts Centre, when I was a teenager, eons ago.

But not a closed full circle; rather, a spiral. I hope to move outwards, onwards. And in this space I'd like to continue talking about words and language, but now to include books and writing and homecoming and Englishness and...well. Whatever, really.

Merci beaucoup for reading.

Sinister Street

Re my last post on bac, a reader very reasonably asked why I hadn't mentioned bac as the abbreviation for baccalauréat, the school leaving examination.  The answer is simple--I intended to, and then forgot! I'm glad she reminded me; I suspect it's the first association a French person makes on hearing bac without a context.

Context is usually crucial in understanding a word, but sometimes it doesn't give enough help to grasp the nuance. I've just read the lovely novel by David Foenkinos, La Délicatesse (2009). (Also a film, screenplay by Foenkinos himself and his brother Stéphane, starring Audrey Tatou). It's the first book I've read by this prolific young author (born in 1974) but it won't be the last.

I found certain key words and themes running through it, including sinistre. This didn't seem quite the same as English "sinister," but its shade of meaning wasn't clear. The heroine Nathalie congratulates, with surprise, Markus on making a joke. Markus, Swedish and phlegmatic, replies, "Thanks. Do I seem as sinistre as that?" He says in Sweden he is considered a boute-en-train (a live wire), and "being sinistre is a calling" there. Another character, Charles, thinks he hasn't made the women in his life laugh enough, and wonders, as his wife hasn't laughed for two years, three months and seventeen days, if he has the power to turn women sinistres. Markus and Charles have a dinner which seems to Markus the most sinistre of his life; Charles, disappointed in love, feels oppressed, feels his life is sinistre. 

I should mention that the book contains joy and optimism as well as sadness. But as these examples suggest, and as the Robert & Collins dictionary confirms, sinistre means "gloomy," "lugubrious;" sometimes "miserable" or "creepy"--c'est vraiment sinistre ici.  It can also mean grim--une sinistre réalité. It does sometimes mean, as in English, "ominous," "of ill omen;" the dictionary adds a special note explaining that this is the only sense in which it translates English "sinister."

In the historical dictionary, Alain Rey says that since the nineteenth century sinistre is often used in a weakened sense to mean "sad" or "boring"--as in La Délicatesse. This weakening is reflected in slang usage: une réunion sinistre, a deadly boring meaning; un sinistre imbécile, an absolute imbecile, with sinistre an intensifier, much as we say "he's an awful idiot."  It's the weakening of sinistre that makes it hard to understand for an English reader, since "sinister"is still strong,  as "awful" used to be.

As in English, the origin is ultimately Latin "sinister," meaning "left" as in "left-hand," "left side." The Romans originally thought the left-hand side was lucky, but then switched to agree with the Greeks that left is bad. This idea has permeated folk-lore and superstition ever since.

I'm Bac!

Though by now you have probably, and understandably, gone away. However, it's just about spring, time for this space to re-flower, after a pause that turned into an unintentional winter hiatus.

Bac means a bin; it's used for the open bins in which records--now CDs or DVDs--are displayed and sold, for rubbish bins, for recycling bins on which one sees written Ce bac est réservé pour le tri, and for various other sorts of containers and tubs, such as a vegetable bin in a fridge--bac à légumes--or the tub of a sink--évier à deux bacs, for example.

It also means "boat," especially a flat ferry-boat type of vessel, but I haven't yet come across this in context. Here on Lyon's rivers we have barges or péniches.

Somehow I thought bac was a modern word, but it has ancient origins. From vulgar Latin baccu or baccos, recipient, it seems to have originally been a Gallic word for "boat," and it has a Breton cognate, bag, plural bigi, boat/s.  Over the centuries it expanded from "boat" to other kinds of containers.

I started wondering whether our modern English "bag" comes from an ancient British cognate of the Breton bag. A bag is also a kind of container, after all. But not so, according to the OED. The early Middle English word bagge "possibly" came from Old Norse baggi. There was also Old French bague and Provençal bagua, "baggage," and medieval Latin baga,"chest" or "sack."  But it's not clear where any of these came from, nor their relationship to each other, and there seems to be no connection with the Breton bag at all.

More etymological mystery. But back to bac and ce bac est réservé pour le tri: le tri is a short form of triage so of course means "sorting," used particularly of sorting rubbish for recycling. In my building there is a rubbish room with grey bacs for rubbish and green ones for recyclables. This not-so-fragrant locale poubelles--first mentioned here last February, a year ago, heavens!--is used by the restaurant and shoe shop workers as well as by other flat-dwellers, and so there's rubbish of all sorts. Cardboard boxes and bits of card from inside boots seem to be thrown willy-nilly into the bacs pour le tri and it's not clear whether you are meant to separate paper from plastic from cardboard or whether it's Ok for it to just all go in pell-mell. As it does.

Glass, however, must be taken to special big oval containers--not bacs but silos, I learn from the city's website--on the streets. You push your bottles and jars piece by piece through a rubber-edged hole in the container's side; each one makes a satisfying crash on impact. This process takes quite a long time when performed by bleary-eyed young men emptying bags full of bottles the morning after the night before.


Sapristi!** How sadly neglected, this space.

The new Tintin film is here and several companies have appropriated the film's language to advertise toys and other merchandise on posters around town. Spielberg's film is in English, so Hergé's French has been transmogrified once more into the "Blistering barnacles!" and other vivid expressions that we've known since the first Tintin translations, comic books, and TV shows. Anyway, the film is great fun.

The expressions used by Tintin, Captain Haddock et al are not typically used in France, of course, but it's been a delight to discover that others one has read in books are still employed in everyday life.

For example, I've been so pleased to find that people do really say Oh-la-la! I've heard it in a variety of situations, once by an elegant elderly lady when nearly pushed off the pavement by a skateboarding youth, and just yesterday by a waitress at a café when I asked her what kinds of tea she had--she wasn't a regular waitress and was just lending a hand, so the question flummoxed her--Oh-la-la, tea? I haven't the faintest idea, I'll have to ask the owner.

People also still say dis donc! or dites donc!  --literally "say then" and meaning "fancy that!" or "goodness me!" or "you don't say!" One hears it on the street quite often as people talk to each other. I haven't yet heard sacrebleu! or zut! to name a couple of expressions I learnt years ago. Well, perhaps even then sacrebleu! was old-fashioned, because now it's marked in Robert & Collins as archaic; zut is not thus designated, however, so should still be in use--I'll keep my ears open.

What one does hear a lot is merde and many variations thereof, as well as chier, to crap, and expressions using it such as ça me fait chier! "It pisses me off!" or, "It's a pain in the arse!" And I am sure there are many other vulgar expressions I'm simply not recognizing, because they are used much more now than when I was in France at sixteen and seventeen.

Exclamations, expressions, and swear words represent one of the greatest difficulties for a foreign speaker of any language: one doesn't know exactly how they sound and feel to the natives. One doesn't have an accurate sense for what linguists call their "register," which is why Robert & Collins kindly append one asterisk for "informal language," two for "very informal language," and three for "offensive language."

For example, the word foutre always confuses me, because I thought it was the same as "f**k," but it turns out that's not really the case. In some usages--for example, je suis foutu, "I'm screwed," it has pretty much lost its sexual connotations and is far milder than "the f word."  (On the other hand, it must be admitted that my own sense of register for "the f word" is probably very much out of date; it still has shock value for me and still seems very strong, but it's used so often by so many people these days that I suspect its register has shifted.) But I'm afraid to use foutre because I'm just not sure enough about how it sounds.

Then baiser, which means "to kiss" and is still used thus, also has a sexual meaning--three asterisks in Robert & Collins--translated by "to screw, to f**k, to lay." So I am terrified of using it is its first sense.

Ciel! Mais c'est difficile, le français! And how I love it.

* Not chopped beef, but an exclamation--Drat! Darn it! or sometimes, Wow!
**Good heavens!


I'm teaching English to a few private students here in Lyon, and the other day one of them was talking about a persistent cough she had; perhaps it was la coqueluche. This was a new word for me, but after another student explained it was a childhood disease featuring a cough, I guessed it meant "whooping cough," and the dictionary confirmed this. What an interesting word! And one that didn't seem to have any relation to its meaning.

After the lesson, I turned, of course, to the Dictionnaire Historique (where, as in Robert & Collins, coqueluche follows right after coquelicot, "poppy," a word which enchanted me when I first learned it sometime in my youth), and learned that M. Rey doesn't know the etymology of coqueluche and nor does anyone else.

It used to mean a sort of capuchon, or pointed monk's hood. It may have a connection with coque (shell of a fruit or an egg) or coquille (mollusc in its shell), but if so it's by means of what M. Rey calls un processus inexpliqué.

Equally unexplained is the word's change of meaning from the monk's hood to the disease.  Perhaps because the disease affected the whole head like a hood, or because sick people wrapped themselves up in hooded cloaks, or because they felt hot with fever, as if wearing a hooded cloak. No-one knows, but folk etymology took over, as people began calling the kind of cough typical of this disease chant du coq (which makes sense because of the way the cough sounds) although the word coqueluche has nothing to do with the bird coq.

From 1625 a metaphorical meaning developed; to be the coqueluche of a person or family means to be the spoilt darling, the one everyone makes a fuss over. In this expression, says Rey, coqueluche still carries the meaning of capuchon, a hood or head covering. A similar metaphor is at work with, for example, toque, a cap or hat, and être toqué de quelq'un meaning to be infatuated with them.

Well, the etymology is obscure, but I can still enjoy the sound of coqueluche--of the word, that is; the sound of the disease is another matter, and a worrying one to epidemiologists, because there's been a recent rise in whooping cough cases and deaths in places, like the US, where previously everyone was vaccinated against it.

Coquelicot, coqueluche, coquilles saint Jacques, coquillage, coquetier, coquinerie....on just one page of the dictionary, so much verbal delight! The words are delicious in the mouth, crunchy, almost croquant. Which leads me to a French tour de force to finish up with, both verbal and culinary: croquembouche, a pyramind of cream-filled choux pastry balls.

Bon appetit!

Back for the "Rentrée"

I was in a restaurant recently where the dish of the day was described as being "à l'ardoise." What's this? I wondered. Some region of France I hadn't heard of, with an interesting cuisine?

The waitress waved towards the specials board and said, "That's the ardoise, it's written there."

Having grasped that the ardoise was the name for the day's specials board itself, I was further enlightened a few days later when, in old Lyon, I saw a shop selling nothing but flat black slabs cut in various cutesy silhouettes like cats and pigs. These were ardoises, and they could be written on like a blackboard, as the shop-owners had done to simultaneously demonstrate their use and to proclaim the superiority of the product. Restaurants often do write their specials on just this sort of black slate.

For of course it turns out that ardoise means "slate." One says un toit d'ardoises for "slate roof;" or, figuratively, J'ai une ardoise chez l'épicier, I have a slate, an unpaid debt, at the grocer's. The colour ardoise is slate grey. And just last night, reading the new book by Didier Ducoin, Une anglaise à bicyclette, I came across bleu ardoisé, "blue tending to slate," for the skirt of Emily, l'anglaise in question, who isn't really anglaise at all. (Also used without an accent, bleu ardoise, slate blue.)

I'd already decided to write about this word, with its shades of "ardent" and "arduous" and its echo of French regions like the Ardennes and the Ardèche, when I found that it merits quite an extensive entry in Rey's Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française. And I learned that my misunderstanding of ardoise for a region wasn't so far off the mark after all.

Ardoise probably comes from a Gallic root "ard" meaning "high," as in Ardennes, originally Gallic Arduenna. I haven't been able to verify whether the same root is in Ardèche, a river name as well as a regional name; but the river carves through mountainous gorges. I was just in this spectacular part of France, so I can testify its landscape is one of towering heights.

In the past here, as elsewhere, schoolchildren wrote on slate; shopkeepers used slates to keep track of customers' credit, which led to the more recent use of ardoise for "cost" as in l'ardoise sociale.

I beg forgiveness for neglecting this blog, and I hope--as befits the rentrée, time of back to school,  fresh beginnings, and cooler September air--to start again with a clean slate.

walk at your own risk

In the last post I mentioned surprising areas in which French punctiliousness is absent. The one that immediately springs to mind--and to sight, and all too often to shoe-sole--is the attitude towards cleaning up after your dog. Which is, ce n'est pas nécessaire.  

Actually, although I've put this attitude in French, I simply cannot begin to understand it. Of course, some dog-owners do clean up after their chiens, I have seen them doing so--one or two. But judging from the appalling condition of the pavements, they are in a small minority. In a country that prides itself on appearances and presentation--and where the wearing of elegant shoes is de rigeur!-- this filthiness in the streets of otherwise beautiful towns and cities is extraordinary.

Many other writers have talked about this, most famously perhaps Stephen Clarke (A Year in the Merde) in his inimitably funny and acerbic way.  I cannot attempt to say anything new or better or funnier or more bitter, but I add my own lament to all the others. And I realise I'm breaking my own rule of shaping a post around a French word or phrase...this one is based on a French phenomenon.

One of the English-language French newspapers recently had an article about this ghastly mess, from which it's clear the phenomenon is not restricted to Lyon (or Paris, where Clarke lives and writes). The article explained that there are special pavement-cleaning machines to deal with this problem, and cited the number of tons of dog waste removed from France's pavements yearly--my numerical blind spot prevents my recalling the figure, but, believe me, it was staggering. And it's true that the urban clean-up crews are very efficient here, just as public transport is, and most other public services; every morning, the streets and pavements are clean, ready to be soiled all over again.

I live on a pedestrianized shopping street down which it should be an unmitigated pleasure to promenade. I'm not far from the cobbled, narrow lanes of Vieux Lyon, also traffic-free, where again one should be able to walk with a liberated and relaxed stride. Instead of which, one has to keep one's eyes vigilantly upon the ground ahead to avoid stepping into disaster.

Que faire? Do I dare accost every dog-owner I see leaving behind his pet's souvenirs? Strangely enough, one rarely sees it actually happening; but if I did, is my French good enough, am I confident enough, to say anything? And what kind of difference would it make, in the grand scheme of things?

We noticed that the little villages around Lake Como in Italy had scrupulously clean pavements and frequently-posted signs enjoining dog owners to be responsible about this. While we were sitting on a bench looking out over the lake one evening, a young boy with a puppy who had taken him by surprise came up to ask if we had any tissues. Young as he was, he knew he had to clean up after the dog. If only this understanding could be imported to all dog-owners in France.

the cheese man knows his onions

I live very close to Monoprix--a shop selling clothes, housewares, and food at reasonable but not rock-bottom prices. In the food department there is a fresh fish counter (overpowering in aroma and avoided by me), a fresh meat counter, and a counter with a wonderful array of cheeses sold by weight. (All these things are also available pre-cut and wrapped).

At this cheese counter, a sign on the wall says:

The key word here, coulant, is of course from couler, to flow, as rivers, tears, or taps; applied to cheese, it describes that perfect soft, flowing, almost runny texture that a ripe Brie -- or local San Marcellin -- has at its heart. A coulant wine is smooth, a coulant writing style is free-flowing.

So, coulant used figuratively of a person means "easy-going" (Robert & Collins) or d'humeur accomodante (Rey's Dictionnaire Historique).  I found no other translation offered in either book. And here is where it becomes interesting: easy-going and of accommodating temperament would seem to be positive attributes. But in the Monoprix sign,  the boast is that the cheeseman himself is NOT coulant  (while his Brie should be, and is). Coulant-ness in him would be a negative trait.

At first I thought the sign referred only to the person (often a woman) working at the counter selling the cheese, but as I write it comes to me that it might refer just as much to the cheese buyer, the person who selects the cheese for the shop and supervises its quality. And of course, when it comes to quality, especially of food, one should never be easy-going in France.

With regard to the cheese he offers the customers, he should not be soppy, or wishy-washy, or "wet" as we British say (more liquid metaphors), but, instead, he must be precise, controlling, and vigilant for any defects in quality. Actually it probably applies to the seller as well -- he must not be slipshod enough to allow any inferior cheese into a customer's panier. (I rather like "slipshod" as a translation for coulant in this negative sense. Opinions welcome).

This sign pleases me very much, with its elegant play on words and its emphasis on quality. Definite opinions, clarity of thought, knowing what's what, drawing a sharp distinction between something good and something that doesn't come up to scratch--all that is highly valued in this culture. This attitude can lead to a certain inflexibility, as famously encountered in officialdom; on the other hand, it produces on-time buses and trains. In my experience, if someone says they will deliver your new washing machine between 10:00 and noon, they do.

But this punctiliousness applies most of all to food. (And is completely lacking in surprising areas--of which more anon). I wouldn't presume to analyse or define Frenchness; I can only speak out of my short experience so far. But to me this sign by the cheese counter seems quintessentially gallic-- So French.

* Literally: When it comes to quality, our cheese specialist is much less runny than his brie.

je suis back

In my last post, written shockingly long ago, I said Italy was a delightfully nearby country. Recently we put this to the test, as we drove to Italy for a holiday. First we went, via the Fréjus tunnel and the Turin-Milan motorway, to Lago di Como, which is as lovely as they say and as pictures illustrate, but even more so. (It did take five or six hours, longer than we expected, to get there...but still, only about as much time as driving to the Dordogne). After that, Aosta, in the mountains and very close to France. The people there speak both Italian and French--a special French all their own--and often German as well. It's a fascinating place with many historical features including the well-preserved Roman city gate and walls; and the whole Val d'Aosta is a feast of dramatic scenery, ancient villages, and chateaux. (Now I sound like a tourist brochure; you had to be there).

We came home via the Mont Blanc tunnel, on the French-Italian border; the wait was half an hour for us, but an hour and a half the other way, and we'd heard the previous Friday evening that there was a two-and-a-half hour queue from France into Italy; so Italy isn't always as near as all that.

In Italy, at first, I had great difficulty in retrieving my once-fluent Italian; everything came out in French.  A good sign, I suppose, though it felt strange. And both my husband and I found ourselves automatically saying Pardon all the time, which shows how often this word is deployed in France--by me (quintessentially English even now) apologetically, but by many French, forcefully, as a weapon for making one's way through a crowd.

Rather than "quintessentially English"--and I suppose I have to add no offence was intended to the Welsh, Scots, or Northern Irish--perhaps I should have said So British, a phrase frequent in French journalism.  Like many other English language expressions, it's often used with a blithe disregard for syntactical function and even meaning. There's a fashion right now, especially in advertisements, of using English words with an appended asterisk pointing to a French translation at the bottom of the page. So we see phrases like must have and mon look and prix light throughout the French text.

Those two last examples are from a flyer from the discount shop Tati; I have to hand, as it arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Prix fous! Prix light! it proclaims, and by the word "light" there's an asterisk. A tiny note explains it means légers.  Not that we would ever say "light prices" in English, of course, but that's the charm of the thing.


When you have visitors, you see things in a new way or, sometimes, for the first time. I recently enjoyed taking my friend and her daughters around the city. One event we were excited about was Italy Visits You, an initiative by the Italian tourist board to promote the regions and food of that so delightfully nearby country.  We arrived at the appointed place when things were just getting under way. I think it was in the advertising for this event that I first noticed the word échantillon, "sample." We looked forward to the promised free samples of Italian food and wine, but there was only--though delicious-- a taste of the risotto that had just been made in a cooking demonstration.

A couple of days later we went to a museum I hadn't yet visited, La Musée des Tissus. It has an extraordinary textile collection, some examples going back to the third, fourth and fifth centuries. Textiles are important here because Lyon was famous, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for its silk. But the museum has many fabrics from many eras and places.  There was also a special exhibition about eighteenth-century costume, with men's and women's clothes worked in intricate stitching and embroidery. And here were échantillons again, in fat books of fabric samples, myriad swatches of hand-embroidered or woven fabrics, in a level of craftsmanship (and needlewomanship) rarely seen today.

After our guests had gone, I returned to a market I'd discovered with them, along the main Boulevard on the Croix Rousse hill, selling bargain housewares and clothes. Here I found a man offering half-price Mephisto shoes, and in each was a label in three languages: échantillon VRP, the equivalent in German, "salesman sample." (I'm not sure whence the VRP.)

Echantillon seems a poetical kind of word for the rather prosaic idea it represents. Now, of course, I turn to the French historical dictionary. It comes from older forms eschandillon, escandelon, derived from probable *eschandil (corresponding to ancient provençal escandil, to measure the capacity of) which is attested in the verb eschandiller, "to verify merchants' measures," used in the region of--Lyon!  This group of words came from Latin scandaculum, "scale," from scandere, "to climb," in the same family as scala, ladder. (Which explains why "ladder" and "scale" are the same word in French--échelle. And the origin of the old-fashioned "to scale" meaning "to climb.") Echantillon originally was related to weights and measures, but gradually shifted to mean "part of a whole, example, sample."

And I like the sound of it, the way it makes me think of enchantment (enchanter) and sparkle (étincellement) even though it has nothing to do with either of them. Although some of those fabric swatches were enchanting, and sparkled with threads of gold and silver.

Ship-shape and Bristol-fashion

I was away in England for a week, not speaking, writing or reading French (despite all intentions), hence the silence here.

Back in Lyon, I found in my mailbox yesterday an unsolicited copy of the newspaper Le Figaro--a promotional freebie, I assume. Always glad to have new reading matter, I've been exploring its pages, and today found an article in the culture section about the quest for undiscovered manuscripts, musical and literary. The piece, by Thierry Hillériteau, mentions Nabokov's unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, famously published in 2009 (2010 in France) against the author's wish, and a sidebar gives more detail.
"Le livre....reproduit fidèlement le manuscrit avec ses bristols qui servaient de brouillons à l'auteur." 
"The book...faithfully reproduces the manuscript with its bristols which served as the author's rough drafts."  Les bristols? As a Nabokov acolyte, and owner of a copy of the book, I'd have realised, even without the photograph in the newspaper, that bristols must refer to the index cards on which Nabokov composed his novels. But why is that the French word for them?

Investigation in my French-English and French etymological dictionaries reveals that this comes from Bristol board, still used in English for a special type of fine cardboard, originally made in Bristol. In French the abbreviation bristol means "Bristol board;" le bristol also meant "visiting card" in the days when these had an important social function. Neither of the dictionaries mentions that le bristol can also be "index card," but that's obviously the case here.

Haunter of stationery shops though I am, I haven't noticed whether index cards are actually sold as "les bristols", but I'll be sure to look next time I'm browsing through (I almost forgot the "through"--lived in America too long!) a tempting array of papers and blank notebooks and such.

Of course I can't end without a glance at what some readers (you know who you are) may have had in mind all along, the very different meaning of "bristols" in cockney rhyming slang, from Bristol City=titty. This usage seems to have emerged in the early sixties. Why Bristol, and not some other city?  Various reasons have been suggested: the city's football team is "Bristol City" so the phrase was already in common usage; there's an obvious echo between Bristol and breast; Bristol was famous in the 19th century for large-breasted prostitutes. I list these with no idea which, if any, is more correct or likely.

Guts and Glory

Of course one thing the French like to do with animals is eat them. Every bit of them. We've just spent a weekend in the Périgord, also known as the Dordogne (please don't ask me to explain what the difference is--I think the former is a historical regional name, and the latter an administrative departmental name), and it was beautiful. The kind friends who hosted us gave us a wonderful overview in a short time.

On the first evening they served a splendid meal of local delicacies, including a walnut-based aperitif, salade de gésiers, foie gras on toast, local cheeses,  and gâteau aux noix. I asked what gésiers (sometimes gisiers) were, and there was some hesitation before I got an answer. Then followed an admission that normally they waited until people had finished eating the gésiers before explaining what they are. But, never mind: gizzards. Bits of gizzard. Probably duck's, as this was Dordogne.

As one of those annoying people who is squeamish about unknown bits of meat, I was pleasantly surprised. Such a ghastly-sounding thing, but actually rather good in the eating--thin, lean, slices, almost like bacon, but with a slightly livery flavour. A few pieces went a long way, for me, but that may be because I had been told what they were....

And yet, I'm not sure. What are they? The English comes from the old French, which is from a popular Latin word thought to be gizerium or gicerium, the cooked entrails of a fowl. The Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française says it may be a borrowing from an Iranian language, but the OED makes no mention of that.

A gizzard is the second (OED) or third (DHLF) stomach of a bird, as everyone but me probably knows already--I somehow always thought it was the throat. I think I gained this impression from colourful expressions in historical novels like "I'll slit your gizzard!"

The OED gives some splendid examples of its uses beyond cookery, as for example by Samuel Pepys in his diary: "I find my wife hath something in her gizzard that which waits an opportunity of being provoked to bring up." Hmmm...not surprising, given Sam' s wenching. He gave her plenty of acida.

Gizzards have been used in cooking for a long time. Here, also from the OED, is an instruction from a work called Two Cookery-bks: Take fayre garbagys of chykonys, as the hed, the fete, the lyuerys, an the gysowrys.

Well, no thanks, actually.

But we did have a wonderful time in the Dordogne, and that supper was excellent, gizzards and all.


I recently read somewhere about a book full of bloggers' excuses for having neglected their blogs, called Sorry I Haven't Posted or something like that. So obviously I am not alone. And I do have the excuse that I was away in the States for a while. But. I must get back into the swing of it!

Well, I began today in a fog, because of having been woken up in the night by a relentless automatically- repeated wrong number on one of our American cell phones. I was due to go to Villefranche-sûr-Saône, the town north of Lyon where my French teacher Bernard is based. He has been driving into Lyon for our lessons, because the back problems I had when we began meant I couldn't travel easily. Today, at last, I was determined to go there, so he didn't have to deal with the drive and the traffic. But I failed to get out of the house quite soon enough, and missed the train by two minutes.

When I called to tell him this, I said "J'ai perdu le train," which of course isn't correct French; to "lose" the train is an Italian locution. He, like the good teacher he is, corrected me: "J'ai raté le train."

I already knew (though forgot to use) this verb rater, to mess something up, bungle, fail (an exam, for example), as well as to miss a train, bus, boat or similar. What I didn't know, until I looked it up just now in my beloved Dictionnaire Historique de la langue française, is that it seems to be actually based, in a roundabout way, on rat (n.m.), the animal "rat."

In the mid-1600s an expression emerged, prendre un rat, "to take a rat," used for when a gun failed to fire properly. This apparently came via old French raster or rater, to gnaw like a rat, which described the noise of the hammer scraping against the plate without drawing a spark. (And the hammer, from its bent shape, is called chien de fusil, "dog of the gun," just to increase the zoological confusion. If a person is lying chien de fusil, it means "curled up.")  So if your gun misfired you "took a rat," and this came to mean to fail in a more general sense. During the nineteenth century the expression prendre un rat was replaced by rater.

Alors, j'ai raté le train, but Bernard was kind enough to wait for me and we did an hour of French, most of which I spent explaining that I am not usually so disorganized. But at least I didn't forget the rendez-vous altogether. I did that once to my kiné, and later Bernard told me the informal way to say I stood the kiné up is to say "j'ai posé un lapin sur le kiné." *   Another animal. It's a zoo out there.

I put/dropped/laid a rabbit on the physical therapist.

Grammatical Cats

Shameful! Only one post for May and we are more than half-way through the month already.

In my last French lesson, we discussed an article from Télérama, a French magazine about TV, radio, and cinema. The article, "Grammaire Amère"* by Fanny Capel, explores the lamentable decline in correct usage of the French language by schoolchildren and University students.  It begins with some examples of dreadful mistakes, and I am glad to say I spotted most of them! (Cette homme instead of cet homme, for example).  The article continues in a vein all too familiar from American and British education: standards are slipping, the teachers themselves have not been properly taught, some feel grammar is too boring and difficult to inflict on the children, others just feel overwhelmed and short of time. Plus faulty language is all around in the media, and many people don't even recognize the mistakes.

Of course, French grammar and spelling are extremely difficult. One's heart does go out to the small French child struggling with it. But, as with any language, real mastery of it can only come by reading and reading and reading--and not just texts, emails and websites!

The French, as is well-known, on the whole still care deeply about the way the language is used. The slapdash style of Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, has caused widespread perturbation, it seems. Perhaps, here, the search for ways of teaching linguistic mastery to today's children will end in success.

My own mastery is far from complete, of course... and yet, funnily enough, it's when English words are used in the midst of French that I'm often most thrown.  Visiting Lyon once, before living here, I asked an estate agent about areas and what kind of flats were available to rent. She asked, Quel type de budget?  The last word flummoxed me utterly, as I thought she was saying bouger, to move, which made no sense in the context; it couldn't be bougie, candlestick, nor did I think it was a French word for budgie; anyway, I gave up, and she had to spell out the fact that she was trying to ascertain how much money I had to fling around.

Now in this grammar article comes mention of certain proposals "prononcés en off,"  which means off the record. And then there is suddenly a strange reference, it seems, to domestic animals: Pour transmettre efficacement un message, faut-il accepter de sacrifier la forme, comme sur les chats?**

For just one second, I wondered in bewilderment what on earth cats had to do with it.

*Bitter grammar
**To transmit a message efficiently, is it necessary to sacrifice good writing, as on chats?

Floundering in cameo and camaïeu.

In earlier posts of this recently-neglected blog, I bewailed my lack of a French etymological dictionary; this has been rectified by the purchase of the wonderful Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française, (2010 edition) edited by Alain Rey. The hefty volume (should have brought my shopping trolley) is beautifully printed, complete with ribbon page-markers, and is a word lover's delight.

On Rue de la République I've noticed--indeed, I've shopped in--a low-priced clothes store with the intriguing vowel-rich name Camaïeu. The logo above the door--a scarlet lily on a purple background--has a tone-on-tone effect, like a coloured silhouette or photographic negative.

I thought camaïeu must mean "cameo" but my français-anglais dictionary said non. "Cameo" is un camée, whereas camaïeu is a word from the realm of painting, meaning "monochrome."  So en camaïeu bleu would be "in blue monochrome," and un camaïeu de roses means "various shades of pink."

The word interested me: more obscure, even poetic, than one would expect for a chain store name, and elusive of easy translation. It stayed in my mind and it was the word I looked up in Rey and in another etymological dictionary while deciding which to buy. Rey's discussion was far more detailed.

When I read the camaïeu entry properly at home, I saw a question mark alongside it, meaning the etymology is obscure.  Earlier forms go back to 1275 (kamahieu), but it's not clear whether the origin is a Latin word or an Arab one. (Interested readers will have to pursue the details).

The basic meaning is une pierre fine taillée formée de deux couches de même couleur, mais de tons différents.* And thus of course it is very close to "cameo" and in fact cameo is the cognate in Italian. But then camaïeu came to mean, by analogy, un genre de peinture imitant le bas-relief, où l'on n'emploie que le blanc et le noir.** This meaning is attested from 1676, and became widespread in the expression en camaïeu. Camaïeu also acquired a figurative artistic sense, péjoratif according to Rey, of "monotone artistic work," ton-sur-ton. That's the meaning given by my French-English dictionary, but Rey says it has fallen out of usage.

Meanwhile, around 1752 cameo was borrowed into French from Italian, as the ancient art of cutting stones in relief to show coloured layers became popular. So the two words existed side by side, camaïeu being used more in the world of painting, and cameo specifically for the jewel, until they conflated from around 1819; so, yes, camaïeu was sometimes used in the nineteenth century to denote a cameo jewel!  Yet the words did not become synonyms; dictionaries, as shown here, still differentiate them.

Confusing, and if I've failed to explain it clearly, no matter. Camaïeu: tone on tone. Camée: cameo (jewel).  What I really love is that this obscure, elusive word decorates the shopping streets of France, alongside Printemps, Darjeeling, and Pataugas ( which latter means hiking boot, from patauger, to wade, paddle, squelch, or flounder).

*a fine cut stone with two layers of the same colour, but of different tones
**a kind of painting imitating bas-relief, using only black and white

Pulp Fact

I'm learning so much French, it's hard to single out just one word to talk about here. I've just signed up at the public library, so I've been borrowing books, in French mostly, and one or two in English as well. (I've also been indulging my vice of buying books, and already have a little collection here in both languages--I'm definitely starting to feel at home!). I was very struck by Bonjour, Tristesse, and I also read a biography of the author, Françoise Sagan, who made her name with this book at eighteen.  I've borrowed a book about la Photographie and a memoir by a woman who was an Orthodox nun on a Greek island for years. I've also been reading various magazine and newspaper articles in French for the conversation class at AVF, and for my private French lessons as well. And naturally I've been talking to people as well, and learning new words and expressions that way. So, more and more, the words I choose to discuss here are picked from many possible candidates.

This time it's "les pulpeuses." Just around the corner from me is a clothes shop for the larger lady, whither I will be repairing very soon if I don't lay off the wonderful French breads and cheeses, and recently I noticed an ad for this establishment in a local publication. In the ad, the shop promoted itself as catering for "les pulpeuses." Pulpeux/pulpeuse means, as one might guess, "pulpy," of fruit, and "full, fleshy," of lips. When used of women, it can be translated by "curvaceous."  Another close equivalent in English language usage, might be "full-figured," but surely no English word conveys the sensuality of pulpeuse, a word seeming to delight in abundant fleshiness.  To the English-speaking ear it sounds as if it would be mocking to call someone a "pulpy woman"--like "squoodgy" or "mushy"?-- but it seems not to be insulting in French; the advertisement for the shop was clearly addressing les pulpeuses themselves. 

And yet, despite this positive-sounding word, fat is very much a worry here. French women may famously not get fat, but statistics show obesity on the rise. Not yet on the British or the American scale--this is the nightmare the French hope to avoid.  In the pharmacies, slimming products-- produits minceur-- are everywhere, and you can sign up for a régime where you are followed and supported in the quest to lose weight. The current issue of the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur has a cover story "Maigrir: est-il dangereux?" and two competing diet gurus, Dr Dukan and Dr Chevallier, standing back to back, ready to duel, armed with forks.

I'm in no danger of finding out whether dieting is dangerous, becoming more pulpeuse daily, especially since I haven't been able to walk as fast or as far as I used to.  It's a good thing that even in this land of svelte elegance, there's a shop, here and there, for the more fleshy among us.

When it comes to the crunch....

In my French conversation class at the AVF (the wonderful volunteer-run welcome association I've mentioned before), we read and then discuss a magazine article or other piece of writing in French. This week the leader (animatrice) brought in song lyrics by French singer-songwriters Jacques Brel, Barbara, and Georges Brassens.  "Chanson pour L'Auvergnat" (Brassens) is addressed to three people in turn, each of whom helped the singer in a time of need: a person from the (famously stingy) Auvergne, a Hostess (I'm not sure what sort!), and a Foreigner. Each stanza ends with the refrain:  .....quand tu mourras, quand le croque-mort t'emportera / Qu'il te conduise, à travers ciel, au Père eternel. *

Croque-mort? I know croque-monsieur and even croque-madame, but croque-mort? It turns out to mean undertaker, person in charge of what the French call les pompes funèbres, but why? Croquer is usually "to crunch" or "bite" and of course mort is "death." Croquant is "crunchy" or "hard to the bite. (Actually a croque-monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwich) isn't necessarily crunchy, even less so croque-madame (with an added egg on top) but that's another story.)

As I think I've said before, I don't yet possess an etymological French dictionary, so I had recourse to the internet, and learnt there are three possible origins for croque-mort (actually the Academie Française said in 1990 it should be spelt croquemort, so that's what I'll do henceforth): It could come from an old French meaning of croquer, "to make disappear," so the croquemort makes Death disappear, takes the body away. Or it could come from the times of plague, when undertakers avoided touching infected corpses by using a croc or crochet, a big hook, which in time became croque. And a third possibility is that it comes from a custom of cracking (croquer) or twisting a corpse's big toe to make sure, from the reaction or lack thereof, that the person was really dead.

What I'm not sure about is the register of this word, the tone--it sounds ghastly and flippant to the non-French speaker, aware of the separate parts of the word rather than its total meaning. Surely it's not something to be used in the context of a real death? I have the impression it may have lost its original resonance in French....but to be safe, I'll stick with fonctionnaire des pompes funèbres. Though I hope I will not have occasion to need this phrase.

To add to the confusion, croquer can mean other things besides "crunch:" it can be slang for "to eat"--apparently the kids say "j'ai croqué," I've eaten; or it can mean "to sketch;" or even "to squander." And more. And in the same Brassens song, there's a reference to les croquantes et les croquants who didn't help him; croquant/e is country bumpkin, yokel, peasant.

For the crunchy, piquant wonder of language, I'll always have an appetite.

*When you die, when the undertaker carries you away, May he take you through the sky to the eternal Father.

Polar Preparations

Preparations are afoot for a big international conference in the Chamber of Commerce nearby, the beautiful mid-nineteenth-century palais of creamy-beige stone with ornate clock and cupids and pointy bits on the roof, also known as La Bourse.  They've relaid the sidewalk in front, trucks are busy unloading, and signs around town point the way.

The conference is called Quais du Polar. A quai is of course a "quay," or a station platform, and polar is slang for a thriller or whodunit. Thriller writers and filmmakers are coming from around the world. Although I don't read the genre much, having grown up adoring Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Ngaio Marsh, and now fearing the contemporary school is too brutal, this is exciting; apparently one novel out of every four sold in France is a polar. 

But what is the origin of this expression? Some dictionaries suggest it's simply a contraction of the word policier, as in roman policier, "detective story." Others give no derivation at all. Of course I've googled around a bit, and, in a 2004 interview on the website polarnoir, the writer Jean-Bernard Pouy says a journalist created the word, but he doesn't say who, or in what context.

Apparently polar first applied more to films, but is now used mainly of books; however, the conference will include books, films, and that big genre here, BD, bandes dessinées: comic strips and graphic novels.  There's also a contest inviting you to write a story; the instructions say they want a polar urbain but otherwise, "le polar est un genre généreux et le champ vous est libre de l'intrigue policière au fantastique, du gris au noir le plus noir, du populo le plus crasseux au bobo le plus snob."  *

I might go to an event or two; at least it would be a change from the activities that have punctuated the last two weeks, such as an MRI appointment, confirmation of a herniated disk, sessions with the kiné (kinésithérapeute, a French physical therapist), exercises I should be doing, core-strengthening postures I should be assuming, and all that non-thrilling stuff.

*The genre is a generous one and the field is open for anything from detective story to fantasy, from the slightly grey to the deepest noir, with the most gritty characters or the most up-market bourgeois bohemians.