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.

I'm Bac!

Though by now you have probably, and understandably, gone away. However, it's just about spring, time for this space to re-flower, after a pause that turned into an unintentional winter hiatus.

Bac means a bin; it's used for the open bins in which records--now CDs or DVDs--are displayed and sold, for rubbish bins, for recycling bins on which one sees written Ce bac est réservé pour le tri, and for various other sorts of containers and tubs, such as a vegetable bin in a fridge--bac à légumes--or the tub of a sink--évier à deux bacs, for example.

It also means "boat," especially a flat ferry-boat type of vessel, but I haven't yet come across this in context. Here on Lyon's rivers we have barges or péniches.

Somehow I thought bac was a modern word, but it has ancient origins. From vulgar Latin baccu or baccos, recipient, it seems to have originally been a Gallic word for "boat," and it has a Breton cognate, bag, plural bigi, boat/s.  Over the centuries it expanded from "boat" to other kinds of containers.

I started wondering whether our modern English "bag" comes from an ancient British cognate of the Breton bag. A bag is also a kind of container, after all. But not so, according to the OED. The early Middle English word bagge "possibly" came from Old Norse baggi. There was also Old French bague and Provençal bagua, "baggage," and medieval Latin baga,"chest" or "sack."  But it's not clear where any of these came from, nor their relationship to each other, and there seems to be no connection with the Breton bag at all.

More etymological mystery. But back to bac and ce bac est réservé pour le tri: le tri is a short form of triage so of course means "sorting," used particularly of sorting rubbish for recycling. In my building there is a rubbish room with grey bacs for rubbish and green ones for recyclables. This not-so-fragrant locale poubelles--first mentioned here last February, a year ago, heavens!--is used by the restaurant and shoe shop workers as well as by other flat-dwellers, and so there's rubbish of all sorts. Cardboard boxes and bits of card from inside boots seem to be thrown willy-nilly into the bacs pour le tri and it's not clear whether you are meant to separate paper from plastic from cardboard or whether it's Ok for it to just all go in pell-mell. As it does.

Glass, however, must be taken to special big oval containers--not bacs but silos, I learn from the city's website--on the streets. You push your bottles and jars piece by piece through a rubber-edged hole in the container's side; each one makes a satisfying crash on impact. This process takes quite a long time when performed by bleary-eyed young men emptying bags full of bottles the morning after the night before.

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.

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