Just a few weeks ago Christine Lindberg explored phrases and idioms that revealed the somewhat surprising way in which the English language describes man’s best friend. But what about that equally popular household pet – the beloved, fluffy, crazy cat? (Those three adjectives are among some of the most popular in the English language to precede the word cat, according to the Oxford English Corpus.) I decided to look at how our feline friends are portrayed in expressions and sayings – but this time I wanted to compare the way that cats are depicted in the English language with the way that they appear in other languages. So using the bilingual dictionaries available in Oxford Language Dictionaries Online (Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish), I began researching whether cats are known universally for getting the cream.
Inspired by the anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, we’re looking at more everyday things which bear the name of the French person who discovered, invented, or inspired them…
A shadow of his former self
1759: France was in the grip of a financial crisis, fighting Britain in the Seven Years’ War and running up a deficit. The country’s newly-established (and rather academic) finance minister, Étienne de Silhouette, decided to introduce tough new austerity measures. Partly inspired by his research trips to London, he proposed the English practice of subjecting the wealthy to taxes from which they had traditionally been exempted. He introduced the “subvention générale” (a tax on external signs of wealth, such as doors, windows, and servants) and ordered the rich to melt down their silverware, but unsurprisingly his proposals did not go down well and he was hounded out after just eight months in the job, retiring quietly to work on his chateau.
On March 31 this year, Gustave Eiffel’s tower – arguably the most iconic symbol of France – celebrated its 124th birthday. Incidentally, the world’s most visited paid-for tourist attraction is the same age as other famous French creations such as the Moulin Rouge and Herminie Cadolle’s first modern bra… – anyway, with all things français in mind, let’s have a look at some other things that were named after the French people who inspired, invented, or discovered them. (You can also explore more in my second post on French eponyms.)
We can trace the entire tobacco phenomenon back to a single moment in 1561: when Jean Nicot de Villemain, a young French ambassador, went to dinner at a friend’s house during his diplomatic stint in Lisbon, and was shown a garden plant from Brazil that apparently had incredible healing properties.
There was one thing I wanted to know as the plane touched down: were we actually abroad? On the one hand, everyone was driving on the left, paying in pounds, and speaking in English (albeit with what sounded like a faintly South African accent). On the other, everything was the wrong colour: yellow telephone boxes, red squirrels, and green pound notes (yes, pound notes – remember them?). As we wound our way through a lush forest of palm trees on the way to the capital, I looked at the bus ticket the driver had given me and saw:
Bouônjour à bord d’la beusse
It looked like French; or rather, it looked how French might look through a tropical haze. In fact, it was my first glimpse of real Jèrriais, the native language of Jersey – rich, colourful, and full of quirky phrases. I’m not sure if I ever worked out whether we were actually à l’êtrangi (abroad) or not; but I did learn this handy Monday-morning response to Comme est qu’ tu’es? (How are you?): J’sis coumme eune pouque mouoillie (I feel like a wet bag).
Cast your mind back to your twelve-year-old self stuck in the classroom on a Friday afternoon in the middle of a French lesson. (Or German, or Spanish, for that matter.) If you grew up as a native monolingual English speaker, what was the thing you struggled with the most when learning a foreign language? Was it the convoluted concoction of verb conjugations? The weird and wonderful sounds you had to produce? Or perhaps the fact that téléphone was masculine and voiture was feminine?
This last point – getting the gender right – is one that perplexes many native English speakers, who scratch their heads at the idea that random inanimate objects could be thought of as masculine or feminine, perhaps because of all the cultural associations we attach to those terms. In fact, classifying nouns by gender is not unusual – around half of the world’s languages spoken today feature some kind of formal gender system. The English language itself used to be no different to modern German in this respect, as Old English grouped nouns into three genders. In Anglo-Saxon times, if you stood on a brycg (bridge – feminine) looking out to sea, you may have glimpsed a wifmann (woman – masculine, oddly enough) on board a scip (ship – rather interestingly, neuter). You would probably then realize you had been drinking too much ealu (ale – also neuter.)
This interactive quiz works much better over on OxfordWords, where it was published on October 4, 2016.
It would always throw people when we told them. The four of us – my sister and I, and the two boys – spent all our school holidays together, and we all had dark hair. So when people asked if my “brothers” wanted an ice cream too, I’d have to take a deep breath and explain – in the long-suffering way that only a ten-year-old can – that they weren’t actually my “brothers” but my “second cousins once removed”. Typically, the reaction would be one of deep befuddlement (particularly from other children: “removed from what??”) Meanwhile, anyone vaguely familiar with the workings of kinship would hazard tentatively, “But if they’re once removed…why are they the same age as you?” (If you can guess why we were all more or less the same age, check your answer at Age is just a number.)
So this article is an attempt to help you fathom out your family tree, or at least the lower branches. First, though, let’s look at the pedigree of the word cousin itself.
Reflect and refract
When was the last time you looked out the window and said, “Oh look! There’s a many-coloured refraction of light from drops of water!”? Well – OK, if you said that last week then feel free to skip the next paragraph, but most of us refer to the sudden splash of colours in the sky as a rainbow, an eye-catching natural phenomenon which has been rich in cultural significance throughout human history.
The science behind rainbows is reasonably straightforward: when sunlight hits a raindrop, it slows down and is refracted, or made to change direction. The raindrop acts as a tiny prism, splitting the white light into all its individual hues. Some of this light is reflected back and further refracted on entering the air again, dispersing outwards to create the spectrum of shades whose names we probably all remember from the school playground.
Some of the words that have arrived in your inbox this year may look or sound familiar but have unexpected meanings. Who could have guessed that one sense of the French word baraque is hefty person, for instance, or that Bach in German actually means brook? And in Italian the word bottega (shop or workshop), so often seen in restaurant titles, has another rather unexpected sense demonstrated in the following phrase: hai la bottega aperta = your flies are undone.
On the same theme, it’s useful to know that if a French man is talking about his tablettes de chocolat (literally chocolate bars) he’s referring to his six-pack, or that another meaning of choucroute (literally sauerkraut) is a beehive hairdo. And London residents may not be surprised to find out that in Italian fumo di Londra (literally London smoke) means dark grey; while an Italian medusa, on the other hand, is actually a jellyfish.
What have Italian composer Rossini and American rapper Ja Rule got in common? A number of possible answers may leap to mind here, but the one I’m looking for is that the two musicians were both born on a date that is mysteriously elusive: 29 February. Except that 2012 is a leap year, and so this year the estimated 5 million or so leaplings, leapers, or leap-year babies around the world actually get to blow out the candles on the cake for their quadrennial celebration. During the intervening common years, however, the timing of their birthday festivities depends on the laws of whichever land they’re in. In New Zealand, a leapling’s official birthday is deemed to be 28 February, whereas in Britain it’s 1 March. If you timed it right, you could fly from one country to the other for the world’s longest birthday.