Everything is Illuminated *

Well, in the last couple of posts I rather forgot my self-imposed brief here--to look at a word, not several. But words always lead to more words....

I had lunch a few days ago in a popular café on the Quai of the River Saône. As we left, one of my companions said,  "C'est très branché ici," which puzzled me until she explained that branché meant "hip," "trendy."

Later I checked the dictionary, and realised that I already knew this word--but from a completely different context. Or rather, in its practical rather than its metaphorical application.

Early in my sojourn here I was grappling with the modem provided by Orange, a thing called a Livebox.  It refused to work, although I read the instructions over and over. Among the words appearing most often in said instructions were brancher and débrancher, which I quickly learnt meant to plug in and to unplug, switch on and switch off, connect and disconnect. Eventually, after taking modem, computer, and all to an Orange advice centre, and being assured it should work, and coming back and finding it still didn't, I had to call the phone help line, and ended up arranging for a technician to come to the apartment. (I can't help saying how proud I was of managing to do all this in French). It turned out that my internet connection, which was meant to come through a telephone jack in the wall, hadn't been branché at the central office or mains or whatever it is. The chap went off and did something back at the dispenser of magical airwaves, and voilà! everything started to work.

And again voilà! Of course! Branché -- "switched on," "plugged in," and therefore, trendy. Sort of analogous, but obviously not completely so, to the English expression "turned on."

You can use brancher of language itself; en langage branché means "in trendy slang." There are also expressions like ça ne me branche pas, "I'm not very keen on that," and se brancher avec quelqu'un, "to get in contact with someone." Hmmmm...I wonder if this last expression has entered the murky waters of ambiguity, like the American  English phrase "to hook up with" ? It's best avoided until I know the ramifications, perhaps.

In the meantime, I have to read more instruction manuals to learn how to brancher a TV to the Livebox, now we've put together the Ikea TV stand and the Ikea TV-watching sofa.  Well, I'm using "we" loosely here....I studied the diagrams and passed my husband the widgets as needed; he did all the work. I couldn't risk aggravating my back problems, now could I?


*Apologies to Jonathan Safran Foer.

It Happens

La Grande Horizontale, c'est moi!  No no no, not in that sense. The sciatica that was making me grincheuse turned into a herniated disk, and I have been flat on the floor for four days, and flat with upright intervals for two.

I haven't been out and about noticing the niceties of French, and in my enfeebled state I've been reading English books instead of the many French ones waiting on my shelves.

However, the upright intervals are more frequent and things are steadily improving, so today I tried to make a couple of phone calls in French, and found to my horror that I have already gone backwards in fluency!  I was making an doctor's appointment and the receptionist offered me quinze or seize and although I knew quinze was fifteen, or three pm, I suddenly for the life of me couldn't grasp what seize was...she had to translate it to the non-twenty-four-hour mode and say "Four."  I felt so daft after all the times I've had Ikea and Darty on the phone giving me their delivery windows between this hour and that, and I've understood.

Then--on a roll, feeling I was getting things done after all the inaction--I called the person who is in charge of administering the practical aspects of life in our apartment building to ask why, all of a sudden, the door to the little room in the hall where one puts one's rubbish is locked, and the numerical code to unlock it doesn't work; only I couldn't summon up the name for that little room, or the word for rubbish.

She patiently explained to me that I meant the locale poubelles, which of course I knew reallylocal or locale is little room, workshop, premises, and poubelles are dustbins (or garbage cans); and she grasped what I meant as I babbled various attempts to say "rubbish" (since there's not much else one would put in the locale poubelles, after all). I felt like what used to be called a blithering idiot and can only put it down to the medication (not that I'm on anything strong) and to my recent isolation from the general French chatter one hears every day just going about one's business.

Household rubbish is les ordures, the dictionary reminds me. Yet another example of the everyday French word sounding more lofty and high-falutin' than the English--of course we could say "ordure" if we wanted to, but trash, rubbish, and garbage seem better to fit the bill.  Of course there's probably a much more basic French word for "rubbish"...and I don't mean merde.  




Parisian interlude

We've just had a weekend in Paris, only my second visit since my early twenties. Our daughter is currently living there, and took us to see the Louvre (a tiny fraction of), the Marais, Sacre-Coeur, Montmartre, the Left Bank, and Shakespeare and Company. I didn't know the famous bookshop was still open and crammed with treasures....they had to drag me away.

The Louvre is overwhelming, of course, and would take years to explore properly. I was especially thrilled by the Victory of Samothrace poised at the top of a staircase; but even in our quick visit we saw countless wonders. I particularly wanted to check out the current exhibit of portraits and "character heads" by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. He lived from 1736 to 1783 but these sculptures seem strangely modern. The character heads show human faces--usually his own--in contorted grimaces, sharply and symmetrically carved in polished alabaster or metal, almost like line drawings, and yet very solid.

The show was strangely compelling and also gave me two wonderful new French words. The heads have been named--not by the artist himself, apparently, but by others later. The names try to describe the emotion or story of in the grimace--so, for example, Just Rescued from Drowning or Childish Weeping. Written in German originally, at the exhibit they were translated into both French and English. One head was L'homme grincheux, the grumpy man. And another was L'homme renfrogné, the vexed man.

Grincheux. Renfrogné.  I love how these words sound so marvellously just like what they mean.  My Robert and Collins gives "grumpy" as the only translation for grincheux, though the American slang "grouchy" may be an even better rendering. Is there an etymological link, or is it all down to the onomatopoeic genius of language? And was Dr Seuss inspired by the word grincheux for his character The Grinch? 


Renfrogné can also be "sullen" and "sulky", though with the satisfying snort of its repeated nasals, I think it sounds more like "vexed," as the exhibit had it; uttered forcefully, it gives an impression of great annoyance.


Perhaps I especially liked these words because they express the way a current bout of sciatica was, and is, making me feel. Grincheuse. Renfrognée. Pretty damned crabby, in fact...this reminds me that "crab" in Italian is granchio, (the ch hard like k), which, although it's not used figuratively as far as I know, sounds grumpiest of all when you say it aloud. Downright cranky.






Wet Blankets

It's too good to be true! Just yesterday, exploring bonnet in the French dictionary, I discovered, as I wrote here, that bonnet de nuit, "nightcap," has in French the figurative meaning of "wet blanket," "killjoy."

Now, the next day, reading in the newspaper Le Progrès about goings-on in the various arrondissements of Lyon, I find the mayor of the 2nd arrondissement, my own, using that very expression!

It's in the context of a new charter for the quality of nocturnal life. It seems as if restaurants, bars and other establishments will be asked--or perhaps have already been asked- to sign on to this charter, in an attempt to reduce nuisance noise at night after such places close and their customers spill out into the street. The mayor of the arrondissement, Denis Broliquier, is gung ho for the charter and for strict sanctions against nocturnal noise.

He says, "On peut espérer une sanction plus sévère que celle de voir son adhésion annulée à cette charte. Nous ne sommes pas des bonnets de nuits mais il faut que la Ville se montre plus forte envers les établissements récalcitrants..."*

"Nous ne sommes pas des bonnets de nuits..."  I love this!  An expression leaping out of the dictionary into the living language the very day after I learned of it! It's a neat phrase for the mayor to use, as well, since it's in the context of quenching nocturnal fun....or in fact, as he says, nocturnal nuisance.

It remains to be seen what difference the charter will make...luckily we have good double glazing, and are surrounded mostly by shops rather than after-dark enterprises, but even so we sometimes hear shouts and yells and general carousing at nights, and in the summer with windows open there will be more of that. So I hope the charter succeeds, even if that does make me a bit of a bonnet de nuit.


*One hopes for stricter sanctions than simply being struck off the charter. We are no killjoys, but the City must show itself to be more forceful towards recalcitrant establishments...

bonnets over the windmill


In the days leading up to Saint Valentine's Day, there were even more almost-naked advertisements than usual on the scrolling billboards and in magazines, and even more seductive displays than before (which is saying something!) in the windows of the shops purveying fancy lingerie.

It was in a French lingerie shop that I learned one says "bonnet" where in English one says "cup." (Only in the context of lingerie, I hasten to add--not for a cup of coffee or tea!) Very amusing to the Anglophone ear, at first, but also rather charming.

In these shops it seems quite normal, by the way, for a boyfriend or husband to be invited to poke his head into Madame's changing cubicle and approve (or not) whatever she's trying on....well, perhaps this happens in the racier lingerie shops in the States and England nowadays; I wouldn't know, but I don't think it would go down too well in the ladies' changing room at Marks and Spencers!

Bonnet does mean headgear as well in French: "bonnet," "hat," or "cap."  A bonnet de nuit is of course a "nightcap" but also, figuratively, a killjoy, a spoilsport, a wet blanket--so different from our figurative use of "nightcap," that last (alcoholic) drink before going to bed.


Bonnets are also what one throws over the windmill, "jeter son bonnet par-dessus les moulins.." And I guess in a sense my husband and I are throwing our caps over the windmill,  kicking over the traces....well, perhaps coming to live in France isn't really as dramatic as that, but it certainly feels like a vault into a new world. 

And yet, after six weeks, I am beginning to feel at home. I have a favourite (sorry, I'm in Europe, I'm leaning back towards the British spellings!) bakery, favourite stalls at the market on Quai S Antoine, favourite place for a coffee. Quite early on I discovered a wonderful shop that sells, among other gourmet treats, leaf tea by Mariage Frères--my current preferred blend is their French Breakfast. I know where the nearby bookshops are, and which newspaper kiosk sells the British papers. I know a bit about the Métro and the tram. All still quite superficial, but it's enough to start feeling I belong. I've hung my hat.





Far from Blue

A delightful day at the AVF yesterday, and I spoke French for most of it. Acceuil des Villes Françaises is an organization through which the towns of France welcome newcomers, French or foreign. The volunteers, here at least, are nice middle-aged ladies--and why, I'd like to know, does that sound faintly amusing? I am a middle-aged lady myself, and we are the salt of the earth. Perhaps femme d'un certain âge sounds more dignified.

On Tuesday, I joined AVF at the office for my arrondissement of Lyon, the Second. Then yesterday I went to the main Lyon office, in the Place de la Baleine in Old Lyon. I walked a few blocks, and then crossed one of the bridges over the River Saône. The air was nippy, though sunshine lit up the green water and the pinky-beige buildings across the river. At the top of the hill, the Fourvière church gleamed white. But the narrow cobbled lanes of old Lyon were in the shade, and I walked briskly to little "Whale Square."

The Thursday international coffee mornings are hosted by volunteers who have themselves lived abroad. They are interesting and friendly; it was lovely to meet them and fellow newcomers to Lyon, and to have a delicious lunch together in the restaurant next door. Plat du jour: roasted farm chicken, green beans, and a divine potato gratin.

Later, in the French conversation group, the subject arose of playing truant, or hooky: you can say faire bleu. I love this, to "do blue" ! But why? My Robert and Collins doesn't mention the phrase, and online I learn the French themselves have found it puzzling. It turns out to be an adoption of the German expression blau machen--though again, why "blue," I do not know.  (Any German etymologists in the house?)  Faire bleu is apparently local to the German-bordering areas Alsace and Lorraine. The more standard French way to say "play truant" is faire l'école buissonnière: to go to "bush school"--the school of the bushes, the forest.

Another interesting French usage is "un bleu," a newcomer, rookie, greenhorn, or novice, as in, Tu me prends pour un bleu? Well, I am a bleu in France, unless you count my two stints here as an au pair girl, a month each in the summers when I was sixteen and seventeen; and so I feel that my wanderings around Lyon, sometimes doing nothing much in particular, are part of my education, even if it does mean I'm skiving off from assembling Ikea furniture and doing housework. I usually have a mission in view, such as the purchase of a newspaper or a baguette or a pair of good walking shoes; but that so easily turns into prolonged exploration.


However, the calendar is filling with commitments, admittedly not onerous: French lessons, conversation groups, and AVF trips to places like the library, specialty restaurants, and the Croix Rousse area of Lyon where the silk workers lived and wove. Plus I seem to have agreed to help out as a sometime animatrice, or leader, of the English conversations. Ma vie française is taking on a shape, though it's still in flux, and that's good. Indeed, as I've repeatedly been told in the last whirlwind months, and continue to learn at first hand, Change is Good! Especially perhaps pour une femme d'un certain âge.


No Trombones

I'm about to send back my automatic debit information for payment of an electric bill--ah yes, life in France isn't all café au lait and croissants--and when I lift the flap of the reply envelope provided, I'm confronted with the following admonitions:

Ne pas plier. Pas de trombone. Pas d'adhésif. Pas d'agrafe.  *

"Pas de trombone" ?!  Of course, as a little diagram illustrating each prohibition shows, a trombone is what the French call a paper clip, and the reason is suddenly obvious as I look at the picture. But what poetry in the prosaic! I am charmed all over again by the way another language can cast a new light on something mundane. Here's a metaphor in the midst of the everyday that the French probably don't even notice, just as we don't notice the metaphors that have become commonplace in English. It takes someone new to the language--a foreigner, a child--to hear them.

When my daughter was four, I showed her a lily of the valley and told her its name; she repeated it slowly and said, that's a lovely word--and I heard the phrase freshly again. More tragi-comically, when one of my sons was about five, he bumped the side of his head hard against something, and I said, "You're going to have a cauliflower ear." He went away, looking thoughtful; I don't remember just how long he suffered in silence. Eventually he whispered anxiously to his father, "Is a cauliflower really going to grow out of my ear?"

For the expert in-depth shedding of light on the mundane, there's Henry Petroski, whose 1994 book The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts--from Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers--Came to be as They are has a close-up paperclip on the cover. I haven't read it yet, nor his book dedicated entirely to another stationery item, the pencil; but I do know The Book on the Bookshelf, his wonderful exploration of the history of the book, from its earliest beginnings, including the evolution of the codex from the scroll (an interest of mine), to the growth of libraries.

Here in France it's easy to find les trombones, les agrafes, les papiers, les cahiers, les stylos, and every sort of stationery item you can imagine, because--at least in Lyon--stationery and art supply stores abound. Some are free-standing, others are enormous departments within bookshops. It's a stationery-lover's paradise; and the word for "stationery" is much prettier in French: papeterie.  And when I signed up for the Decitre bookshop carte de fidélité --almost every store has its loyalty card--I was given a coupon for 10% off all the papeterie. I can't wait to go and spend it! Decitre is a wonderful bookshop with two branches on opposite sides of Place Bellecour; one with many floors of books in French, the other with books and newspapers in various languages, especially English. And, of course, I go back and forth between the the two.


*for non French speakers: Do not fold; No adhesives; No staples. Re trombone, read on.

Word Hoard

Here's another internet wonder of which I was ignorant, and have now learnt about from a kind friend in England: I can access the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary with my Gloucestershire Libraries card! This is a most amazing thing.

Of course, I hastened to look up "guinea fowl" and found it's "a gallinaceous bird of the genus Numida." Early references include:  "1655 T.Moffett & C. Bennet Healths Improvem. x.84......certain cheqred Hens and Cocks out of New Guiny, spoted white and black like a Barbers apron; whose flesh is like to the flesh of Turkies."

And indeed, the pintade I had for dinner was turkey-like. But I can't help wondering if it's right to eat such a beautiful bird, spotted "like a barber's apron."  Did mid-seventeenth-century barbers wear spotted aprons the way chefs wear chequered trousers today? Or--now I see this is more likely--it's that a white apron becomes speckled as the hair cuttings fall on it.

On the online OED, a sidebar lists the words surrounding guinea-fowl alphabetically, almost as if it were a page in the "real" dictionary; and so I click on "guinea-cock," and go further back in time, to German writer Conrad Heresbach's husbandry guide, originally in Latin, translated in 1577 by Barnaby Goodge:  "I would fain learn the right ordring of their outlandish birds, called Ginny Cocks, and Turky Cocks...Before the yeere of our Lord 1530 they were not seene with us."

I'm not sure, as I haven't read the quotation in context--though I long to do so, as happens when you start this--what Heresbach means by wanting to "learn the right ordering" of the birds; taxonomically, perhaps? Instead, I imagine a flurry of speckled feathers and a furious cackling, and him standing helplessly in the farmyard trying to call them to order...

The intriguing-sounding Dyets Dry Dinner by H. Buttes, 1599,  says "The Ginny-cocke was first brought out of Numidia, into Italy.." Testimony to the bird's African origin, hence its genus name, Numida.


I must stop. And I promise I won't quote chunks of the OED in every post, though I might be tempted. This is meant to be about French words, after all! But it is wonderful to know I can open it at will, and read it more easily than with that wretched magnifying glass.

So would I be perfectly happy if the third edition (now in preparation) never appears in book form? No. That would be a great loss. Somewhere, if only in a library, one should be able to find all twenty or more volumes, in readable print, and with covers and spine and turnable paper pages. That is, if one can find a library; yesterday I walked down to central Lyon's huge, open place, Bellecour, and at the kiosk bought an English language newspaper, in which I read that many public libraries in Britain are to be closed.

C'est dommage.  And that's British understatement.

Birds of a feather

Goodness, I'm posting on consecutive days...you'll have spotted that I've carefully avoided promising a daily post; the discipline is something I admire and even aspire to, but then I hesitate to commit to it, and also perhaps I fear to overload the blogosphere...

However, I feel I should follow up on pintade, or guinea fowl, as I said I probably would. A friend of a friend mentioned that to find out more about a French word, one can go on google.fr and ask for a définition. This produces definitions from several different dictionaries. (I expect you are now mentally saying "no duh," but I'm still quite ignorant about many internet wonders). I did this for pintade and was gratified to learn my hunch was correct: the French word for guinea fowl does have a connection with the concept of paint, via Portuguese or Spanish pintar, to paint, and pintado, painted. And of course the bird does look as if someone took a paintbrush to it, as a quick google search for its photo will reveal.

A quick google search: yes, that is how we do everything now. And I can't help but wonder if it means that my kind of musing, questioning exploration of words is too old-fashioned for this universe of fast answers.

Among the French definitions of pintade I also found a wonderful note from Le Dictionnaire de L'académie française, saying that figuratively and familiarly, il se dit d'une Femme sotte et vaniteuse.  I don't know if this use of it to mean a foolish and vain woman is still current--more fluent French speakers will have to tell me that; but it reminds me of a wonderful Italian figurative expression taken from a different bird: pavoneggiarsi, to peacock oneself. (Peacock is pavone in Italian.) This is used more of men than of women, I believe (after all it's the peacock not the peahen that is the spectacular bird), and suggests overt self-display in the evening passegiata up and down the corso.


I sense an interesting potential for cultural analysis of whether preening self-display is more common in French women than French men, and, conversely, more a tendency of Italian men than Italian women!
In both countries, as the kind of person who can be bothered to read this blog will know already, appearances are supremely important. And as I have an appointment at the bank in forty-five minutes, I must go and prepare myself for the outside world. I will try and appear reasonably smart, but any such attempt will be sadly offset by my bleary eyes and red nose, as I'm suffering from a heavy cold.

Grumpy as this makes one feel, I can still rejoice at being here, especially as the weather is lovely again today, with a blue sky and sunshine. So I will sally forth--not a pintade, I hope, and I certainly won't pavoneggiarmi; if I could choose the bird I would like to be, it would be an English robin, perhaps? A female blackbird? Or perhaps I am more--in this blog at least--a magpie, stealing bright glistening things from here and there, and shoving them any old how into my nest, where they gleam incoherently among the prosaic twigs.

Zed (or Zee)

Well, the reason I don't have have my beloved Oxford English Dictionary with me, or indeed most of my books, is simple: I just could not bring many of them here with me. And I cannot begin to explain how bereft this loss of my library--or what's left of it, since our recent downsizing--makes me feel.

But actually, my OED is less and useful to me as time goes on. I have the two-volume edition, in which the print is miniscule, so a magnifying glass was supplied; but even with the glass, it is too hard for me to read now.

I think I will take the extravagant plunge and buy the CD format. There is absolutely no substitute for the OED, as word mavens know; it's a monument to the richness of the English language and gives examples of a word's usage from the earliest days. Rumour has it that the next edition will probably not appear in traditional book form at all.  The current full-size edition takes up twenty volumes, and few people have money to buy it or space to store it....but still, it's a shame if this most wonderful of books will not be a book any more.

Here in Lyon it is a beautiful morning. A luminous blue sky and sunshine...the temperatures were spring-like yesterday and forecast to be mild again today. We can see a wide swath of sky because our apartment is on the fifth floor, almost at roof-top level. We can also see that the roof and dormer windows of a nearby building are being repaired, and a banner draped over the scaffolding proclaims that the construction company does charpente-couverture-zinguerie: carpentry, "covering"--roofing, I assume--and the intriguing-sounding zinguerie.


Zinguerie makes me think of gypsies, because zingara is gypsy in Italian--a word conjuring the swirl of long skirts and the throbbing violin. The reality of the effect on Italian and other European cities of the people known as "gypsies"--colourfully dressed street beggars and, sometimes, pickpockets--is less romantic. Although they are popularly called gypsies, I'm not sure they are really Romany, or Roma. I ought to know, because I've read Isabel Fonseca's fascinating book about gypsies, Bury Me Standing; but, alas, as with so much I read, I have retained little. One snippet I do remember is that, in the gypsy world, cats are filthy, because, when they clean themselves with their tongues, they take all their dirt inside their bodies.

However, it's unlikely this roofing company has anything to do with gypsies; so, to the French-English dictionary (Le Robert & Collins): ah. Zinguer: to coat with zinc. Zingeur: zinc worker. So zinguerie, though not in the dictionary, must be "zinc work." A plombier zingeur is a plumber and zinc worker. I'm not really sure what the metal zinc is or does (although I know it's thought to help the immune system these days) nor why this construction company would mention zinc work as a part of its repertoire, unless by extension zinguerie has come to mean metalwork more generally. More prosaic than it sounds, and if you knew this all along, you're laughing.

Never mind; I enjoyed my foray into the z --zed as we Brits say, zee in American--section of the French dictionary, with its other exotic-sounding words like zizanie, which means ill-feeling, and zibeline, sable. But perhaps z doesn't sound exotic to the French: there's also zozo, nitwit or ninny, or guy or bloke, (I don't think the dictionary is saying these are all the same thing!), not to mention zizi, the equivalent of the English childhood word "willy" for a certain body part. Funnily enough, I knew zizi already, from the subtitles of the wonderful movie we saw yesterday,The King's Speech.

All Fowled Up


A few days ago, we went out to dinner, and on the menu (menus are frequent sources of puzzlement) was something called pintade; all I could glean from the description of the dish was that it would be cooked in some kind of African fashion. Was pintade meat, fish or fowl? The waiter, when I asked, said it was volaille. Fowl, then. When the dish came it was indeed some sort of poultry; very like chicken, but its bits seemed worryingly small. Not quite sparrow-small, though; I didn’t think it wasn’t a question of tiny songbirds netted during migration or anything awful like that—I fervently hoped not, since I devoured it with enjoyment.

The following day, at the market along the river bank, there was a stall with rotisserie chicken, poulet, (smelling irresistible), and also, according to the list of wares, pintade. I didn’t see the mystery bird, as I was jostled away to the cheese counter, where I became absorbed in the choice between brillat savarin and gouda and gorgonzola (bought a bit of each), so I was still none the wiser.

The rest of Sunday we were busy eating the roasted chicken and potatoes, and visiting the Musée de L’Imprimerie where, in vaulted sixteenth-century rooms, we saw early printing presses and precious incunabulae, plus a temporary exhibition of wonderful London Transport posters, courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art. (This global world--posters of my native England, in a historic French building, via an American university).

So now, today, finally to the dictionary: and pintade is “guinea-fowl.” Aren't they those pretty little hens with speckledy feathers? And why do we say “guinea-fowl”--did they originally come from Guinea? And what is the origin of the French word, which has no inkling of Guinea about it?  Is it related to peint and the painted look of the bird’s polka-dots?

And now I see that for this enterprise I will need to acquire another copy—a computer version?—of the Oxford English Dictionary, without which one cannot discuss words properly at all….or at least English words. And also an etymological dictionary for the French lexicon. Well, one step at a time…

Next: Why I don’t have my dear OED with me, or indeed, most of my books. 
Plus: can I write anything, even a little blog, without my books around me? 
And, perhaps, the answers to those questions about guinea-fowl.