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: verano / summer / été / estiu

Wednesdays, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages.

In this park.

In this park.

May is over and I’m pretty sure there were only two 24-hour periods where it didn’t rain.

Standing in a park the other day as the drizzle started to fall, someone nearby muttered, “Finally.” Unsure of who they were speaking to, I said, “Excuse me?” The man was a little startled but seeing that I didn’t pose any threat, he said, “It’s finally raining. You know how you wait all day for it to start when you know it’s coming? It’s just a relief when it finally starts.”

Yeah, dude. I totally know that feeling.

CAT → estiuEstació de l’any, entre la primavera i la tardor, que, a l’hemisferi nord, comença el 21 de juny, al solstici d’estiu, i acaba el 23 de setembre, a l’equinocci de tardor. [Season of the year, between spring and fall, which, in the northern hemisphere begins on the 21 of June at the summer solstice and ends on 23 September at the vernal equinox.] ORIGIN Latin aestīvum [summer-like, summer].

EN → summer — the warmest season of the year, in the northern hemisphere from June to August and in the southern hemisphere from December to February. ORIGIN Old English sumor, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch zomer, German Sommer, also to Sanskrit samā [year].

ES  veranoÉpoca más calurosa del año, que en el hemisferio septentrional comprende los meses de junio, julio y agosto. En el hemisferio austral corresponde a los meses de diciembre, enero y febrero. [Hottest period of the year which, in the northern hemispheres is made up of the months of June, July and August.] ORIGIN Low Latin veranum [weather].

FR → étéSaison qui suit le printemps et précède l’automne (du solstice de juin [21 ou 22] à l’équinoxe de septembre [22 ou 23], dans l’hémisphère Nord). [Season which follows spring and precedes autumn from the June solstice (the 21st or 22nd) until the equinox in September (22nd or 23rd) in the northern hemisphere.] ORIGIN Latin aestas [year, summer, heat].

General note: all the definitions included the dates for the southern hemisphere but they made the post too damn long so I cut them.

Spanish-Catalan crossover note: the primary definition in Spanish read estío which was the first time I’d ever come across the word in that language. I’m familiar with it as an adjective, estival, but not as a noun. Curious.

French note: I guess in context it was clear to the Romans if someone meant “year” or “summer” but I’m starting to suspect that there just weren’t enough words in Latin. Of course, maybe if I knew about declinations and all that other business, I wouldn’t think so.

Lots of cool stuff today, including some vindication for Elizabeth, but when crazy languages like Sanskrit show up, I’ve got to go that way. Today’s winner is English for being the most bonkers. Way to win, English!

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Word Mystery: mirror / espejo / Spiegel

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

I recently saw Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY for the first time and was significantly blown away by how beautiful it is. The background images are very stylized and I love them. I wish I had wallpaper of some of the forest scenes so that I could sleep surrounded by weird ferns and gnarled trees.


Besides being stunning to look at, the story is well told and not at all annoying (unlike Disney’s SNOW WHITE which I can’t get through because Snow’s voice makes me want to tear my ears off). Also fun: finding a Word Mystery in the looking glass!

EN → mirror — a reflective surface, now typically of glass coated with a metal amalgam, that reflects a clear image. ORIGIN from Old French mirour, based on Latin mirare [look at].

ES → espejoTabla de cristal azogado por la parte posterior, y también de acero u otro material bruñido, para que se reflejen en él los objetos que tenga delante. [Glass piece which is silvered on the back (also steel or other brushed metal) so that objects placed in front of it are reflected.] ORIGIN Latin specŭlum.

GR → SpiegelGegenstand aus Glas oder Metall, dessen glänzende, glatte Fläche Bilder, optische Erscheinungen zurückwirft. [An article of glass or metal which reflects back the shiny, smooth surface of photo optical phenomena.] ORIGIN Latin specŭlum.

Spanish note: this is one of the most oddly worded definitions I’ve come across. I usually waver between semi-literal translations and ones that read better, but this one kind of stumped me. Even in Spanish I think it reads badly. Loses just because it offended me on an aesthetic level.

German note: I’m more than a little disappointed that this shares the exact same root as Spanish. I wonder how many Latin words root German ones? Will have to look into this.

German note Zwei: I don’t speak German. I only know this word because it’s printed on the side of my mirror.

Today’s winner is English since I love the Latin meaning.

⇒ See more backgrounds from SLEEPING BEAUTY by clicking here or here.

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Word Mystery: box / caja / boîte


I own one chair. That's all the furniture I've got.

I own one chair and a helluva lot of boxes.

Wednesdays, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages.

It’s moving time again, so my life has become about boxes and packing and rediscovering things long forgotten. (Someday I will share with you how many brand new spatulas I own. You will be as shocked as I was unless you also have more than a dozen of the same unused kitchen item.)

EN → box — a container with a flat base and sides, typically square or rectangular and having a lid. ORIGIN Old English, via Latin from Greek puxis [small box].

ES → cajaRecipiente que, cubierto con una tapa suelta o unida a la parte principal, sirve para guardar o transportar en él algo. [Container which, open or with a lid (separate or part of its construction) is used to keep or transport something.] ORIGIN Latin capsa.

FR → boîtecontenant rigide en bois, carton, métal ou matière plastique, avec ou sans couvercle, dans lequel on met des objets ou des produits divers. [Stiff container made of wood, cardboard, metal or plastic, with or without a cover, in which one puts things or various products.] ORIGIN Latin buxeti [grove of boxwood trees] from Greek puksis [small box].

What? I have no idea what’s happening here. It’s a truly baffling day when the Spanish word is the most logical of the bunch.

Additional confusion: the English and French both come from the same word but are spelled differently. This is apparently acceptable, I’d guess partly because the Greek alphabet doesn’t have a 1: 1 with the Roman one, but also maybe because there weren’t standard spellings of things in Ancient Greece. (At least, that’s the impression I get from books like David Crystal‘s which feature cabals of academics / priests deciding how things will be written.)

Botanical note: I am very bad with plants and don’t know the names of most green growy things, so I never considered that boxwood trees are trees with good, hard wood that people used to make boxes out of. Sometimes, if you don’t look too hard, English is totally easy. Other times, not so much.


Word Mystery: construction / obras / travaux

zona de obrasEvery Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages.

The first time my best friend came to Europe, it was with me on a mini-tour through Spain, France and Italy. We met up with my mom in Madrid and tried going to lots of places that interested him but were frequently met with signs that read OBRAS.

“Obras, obras. What the hell’re obras and why are there so many of them?” he asked, extremely annoyed that so few establishments wanted to take our money to let us look at stuff.

At the time, I tried to explain to him that things in Europe work or they don’t, are open or aren’t, and that losing money is seldom a consideration. Now, after nine years of Continental living, I can say that it’s more surprising for things to be open and not under construction since Europe is both old and falling apart.

And now that the weather’s turned not-horrible, the obras are back in town big time. Recently, the part of the Line 1 metro that’s in the center of the city has been closed, leading to me being trapped underground for ages. Being stuck under layers of earth with a bunch of idiots who don’t know where they’re going is one of the few things that still makes me Hulk-out, rage-wise, but I just thought of my friend and how he ended up spending much of our holiday mumbling “Obras, obras, obras,” under his breath and how that made me laugh.

EN → construction — the building of something, typically a large structure. ORIGIN late Middle English: via Old French from Latin construere [heap together].

ES → obras — Edificio en construcción. [A building in/under construction.] ORIGIN Latin operāri [to work].

FR  travaux — Ensemble des opérations de construction, d’aménagement ou de remise en état d’édifices, de voies, de terrains, etc. [All construction operations, development or remodeling of buildings, roads, lands, etc.] ORIGIN Common Latin trepaliare [to torture] from Low Latin trepalium [instrument of torture].

Three scoops of Latin today! I have to admit that so much Latin is starting to make me want to study where those words came from, but this impulse could go one of two ways: I don’t understand anything or I become totally obsessed. Neither of these is appealing.

English note: BO-RING.

Spanish note: Poco interesante.

French note: BIG WINNER! In French, “work” actually comes from “torture”. I love this country so much, it hurts sometimes.


Word Mystery: woman / mujer / femme / dona

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

A big part of my life in Spain was about filling out forms. When I arrived in 2005, I had to deal with residency issues, nationality issues and ID-issuing issues. It was always frustrating and occasionally traumatic but it did get to the point that I could enter all relevant information into the casillas [: little houses, i.e. empty fields] while half-asleep.

This was not the case the first time. The first time I tried to fill out a form, I had to ask the woman at the counter what my gender was because I wasn’t sure. The options were H or M and I could think of lots of possible words those letters represented.

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My initial thought was hombre [man] and mujer [woman] but there was also hembra [female animal] and macho [male animal]. It turned out to be the former, but it felt wrong to mark myself as M when I’d been F my whole life (and therefore, distinctly not M). Languages shouldn’t be so confusing.

EN → woman — an adult human female. ORIGIN Old English wīfmon [wife], related to Dutch wijf and German Weib.

ES → mujerPersona del sexo femenino. [Person of female gender.] ORIGIN Latin mulĭer, –ēris [mistress, wife, woman].

FR → femmeÊtre humain du sexe féminin. [Human being of female gender.] ORIGIN Latin femina [female, woman].

CAT → donaPersona del sexe femení. [Person of the female gender.] ORIGIN Latin dŏmna, contraction of dŏmĭna [lady, wife, lover], feminine of dŏmĭnus [owner, lord, master].

English note: as a person who hopes never to be a wife, this bums me out.

Spanish note: “mistress” is the first definition! All I can say is, “!!!!!!!!!!!”

French note: Femme is a word that many Americans, myself included, regularly pronounce wrong. We say /fem/ in phrases like femme fatale, but in French it’s more /fam/. This is similar to a Catalan annoyance I have. Again, languages shouldn’t be so confusing.

Catalan note: following the previous note, the plural is dones, but /ˈdɔnəs/.

Today’s winner is Catalan since it isn’t overtly sexist and I like it best and I run things around here.