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.

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?

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.