Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: to be / ser / être


Word Mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

chickenhamlet2The last time I was in London, a city I don’t generally care for, I went to see a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was pretty incredible and made me think that perhaps I should go back more often just to see the stories done justice by actual Brits.

Of course, my favorite of the Bard’s works is “Hamlet” primarily because it’s eminently quotable and can be interjected into everyday conversation. However, being a sick puppy, I also love it because it checks two boxes on the list of things I like in stories: the lovers are never together and everybody dies or is miserable at the end. Unhappy endings are the best.

And so, on to today’s Word Mystery, inspired by Hamlet’s most famous line, “To be, or not to be.”

EN → to be — exist. ORIGIN Old English bēon, an irregular and defective verb, whose full conjugation derives from several originally distinct verbs. The forms am and is are from an Indo-European root shared by Latin sum and est. The forms was and were are from an Indo-European root meaning ‘remain.’ The forms be and been are from an Indo-European root shared by Latin fui ‘I was,’ fio ‘I become’ and Greek phuein ‘bring forth, cause to grow.’ The origin of are is uncertain.

ES → ser — Haber o existir. [To be, to exist.] ORIGIN Latin essere [to be, to exist].

FR → être — Avoir une réalité, exister. [To be real, to exist.] ORIGIN Latin essere [to be], from Latin stare [stand].

I think English wins today’s WM, just on the basis of complexity.

Hamlet - Calvin and Hobbes

Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

9 thoughts on “Word Mystery: to be / ser / être

  1. Nice one…As usual, I learned something as I hadn’t realized that the verb To Be was such a complex one.

    Personally, I quite enjoy London. It isn’t as pretty as Paris but it has vibe & grits that are missing in Paris. Though, despite having multiple friends living there (or around) we have only been once since we got settled in Paris…we really need to remedy that!

    • I’ve tried with London many times and I just can’t. The countryside is lovely and I’d like to do some kind of literary tour someday but I really just can’t find anything I like about the city (or the City) that I can’t find elsewhere with better weather. I’m not going to give up though!

  2. I just finished watching Stephen Fry’s mini series “Planet Word” and this immortal phrase came up in the last episode. A French actor whom Fry interviewed brought up an interesting point: what if it’s actually read “To be or not? To be, that is the question.” Just thought I’d throw it in here, I suppose it adds to the overall mystery of the whole verb…

    • Thanks for the tip about SF’s show! He’s so prolific, it’s really hard to keep up, but I do love him and will start on this asap.

      (Also, your comment is my mom’s favorite. Make of that what you will…)

      • Haha! Well I’m glad someone found it interesting :) Stephen Fry is amazing, I definitely recommend the series as well as his writing. Such elegant use of words…

      • Don’t get me wrong; I liked it too, but my mother’s approval is harder to garner and therefore worth more!

      • Even better then! Hopefully I will live up to my newly gained status of approval when I comment on future posts… Life’s a gamble.

tell me something good

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s