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: prune / podar / élaguer


Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages.

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What’s the opposite of a green thumb? Typhoid Mary finger? Pathogen pinkie? Infectious digit? Whatever it is, I’ve got it. If I just look at a plant too long it’ll die even though I like plants (as long as they aren’t flowers) and I’m pro-oxygen generation.

I am totally honest with people when I take on their sublets: if they leave living things in my care, they will not survive despite my best intentions. If they want to see their precious greenery in a few months, they need to make arrangements that don’t involve me.

This is why the owner of my current domicile recently came over to tend to her garden. She had to prune some things and throw more dirt on some other things and generally aerate the dirt around a third grouping of things. All of her poking and prodding reminded me of a Word Mystery which I had not yet dug into, so let’s get our hands dirty.

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EN prune — trim (a tree, shrub, or bush) by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, esp. to increase fruitfulness and growth. ORIGIN Old French proignier [abbreviate?] possibly based on Latin rotundus [round].

ES podarCortar o quitar las ramas superfluas de los árboles, vides y otras plantas para que fructifiquen con más vigor. [Cut or remove superfluous branches from trees, vines and other plants so that they bear fruit with more vigor.] ORIGIN Latin putāre [clear up, settle, reckon, estimate, value, think, believe, suppose, hold, mean].

FR élaguerréalizer l’opération qui consiste à couper certaines branches d’un arbre. [Perform the task of cutting certain branches from a tree.] ORIGIN Norwegian laga [put in order].

Well, I’m stumped. I have no idea what to make of any of these words today.

English note: Old French references aren’t easy to come by online, so I can’t verify what proignier means, nor can I see any connection between “cutting” and “round.”

Spanish note: Putāre had a whole slew of definitions, many of them different from each other, none of which seem connected to promoting growth, horticulture, or culling. It’s also not related to puta (I checked).

French note: At least the origin word is still identifiable in the modern French word, but I think it’s kind of a stretch to say that “pruning” is “putting in order.” Maybe the win goes to France by default since the other two are so out there?

Another thing

Writing out “horticulture” made me think of Dorothy Parker. When asked to use the word in a sentence, she said, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” Snerk. She was the best.

You can read an appreciation of Parker here or just scan a list of some of her best quips here. Though in later life she disparaged the infamous group of which she was a part, her legacy is long.

Author: le cul en rows

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

9 thoughts on “Word Mystery: prune / podar / élaguer

  1. Interesting. I truly didn’t know that some of the French words came from Norwegian…learned something today! (Suzanne)

    • It is odd, isn’t it? Especially since I would think that there’s less of a need for pruning so far north. I imagine that most trees in Norway are evergreens (though I could be way off base).

      Glad we both learned something today!

  2. You’re stumped! The post I’m preparing for next week looks at phrases with stump in them. I’ll link back here. Sue

  3. The French word wins for also being the most aesthetically pleasing, which I feel is appropriate because a good plant is usually quite aesthetically pleasing. Now that spring is officially here as of tomorrow I’m counting the weeks until I can go to my favorite herb garden store and get all of the herbs. (I like flowers, myself, but I’d rather have a functional planter garden until I have space enough to have some flowering areas.)

    • I dream of having an herb garden / planter thing in my urban kitchen but I seriously kill everything. On José Andés’s Spanish TV cooking show, he had one made of plexiglass that was kind of like an ant farm for herbs. I covet it to this day.

  4. When I read the header (I get notices of your posts by email) I thought about prune, the noun, which is the same in English and French. (Obvious: Latin “prunus.”) But in Spanish it’s “ciruela” or “mascada.” So much for cognates. (Note: in the U.S. boxes of prunes are now labeled DRIED PLUMS with “prune” in smaller letters.) As for the verbs — English usually/frequently end with a closed sound while French and Spanish end with open sounds. (The infinitives, that is.) So “elaguer” seems expansive, which in spring is a nice thing. (I am really stretching for the metaphor this morning! But I have recommended your blog to several more people this week.)

    • I’ve got the edible kinds of prunes (in all languages) on lists for different posts. It’s certainly an odd word to crop up so many times across languages while having different meanings.

      I agree that élaguer is the prettiest of the words and given that there are no hard and fast rules determining who “wins” on any given day, I’ve decided that I chose wisely this week.

      And thanks for the recommendations! Maybe you’re the reason I’ve had an uptick in followers this week (it’s always a bit of a mystery to me how people find the blog), but I appreciate the exposure.

  5. Pingback: Stumped by technology | Sue' s considered trifles

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