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.

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.

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