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.