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.