Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


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Word Mystery: sequin / paillette / lentejuela

Some Topshop frock.

Some Topshop frock.

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

There is pretty much no scenario in which I can organically talk about sequins, so the week following when a bunch of people wore them in Hollywood seemed like the only possible way to get this trio, the third on my list of almost 140 Word Mysteries, into the mix.

Get your dancing shoes on and shimmy on over to the learnin’.

EN → sequin — 1 a small, shiny disk sewn as one of many onto clothing for decoration. 2 (historical) a Venetian gold coin. ORIGIN From second sense, this, chronologically from Arabic sikka [a die for coining], to Arabic zecca [a mint/place for coining metal] to Italian zecchino [pure gold coin].

ES → lentejuelaPlancha, pequeña y redonda, de metal u otro material brillante, que se cose en los vestidos como adorno. [Small, round piece of flat metal or other shiny material which is sewn on clothes as decoration.] ORIGIN Diminuative of lenteja [lentil], this from Latin lenticŭla [freckle, lentil].

FR → paillettePetite lamelle de matière brillante servant d’ornement sur les vêtements. [Small piece of shiny material which serves as decoration on clothing.] ORIGIN From paille [straw], this from Latin palea [chaff, husk].

English note: Ooooh, I like it when there’s a clear progression between the original word and the modern one. It should be noted that sequins are probably only slightly less heavy than actual gold coins.

Spanish note: This makes sense to me, though I would never attach lentils to my person.

French note: A bit confused by this one. I guess that maybe if you slice a piece of straw, you’re left with something small, round and kind of decorative. If you attached a bunch of them together, they might even make a sound like sequins do, but they won’t shimmer and shine.

Today’s winner, despite how I feel about lentils, is English because I really like the idea of just strapping one’s money to oneself to show off.

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Word Outlier: bigote

mustache-you-a-question-red-white-and-blue-mdYou are now entering a place… where one strange word… lives alone… separated from its sibling signifiers. This is The Outlier Zone.

My nephew and I were recently sick simultaneously which made for fairly gross Skype sessions. We were both really congested and had noses and upper lips which were rubbed red from all the blowing and wiping. I tried to make light of the situation by saying that we had matching mustaches and were Jamaican and he giggled, I think because he heard the inflection signifying “funny” and not because he got either joke.

In the dead space between when I am used to having my comedy stylings appreciated and the next terribly witty thing I say, I realized that I had a Word Outlier right under my nose.

bigote — Pelo que nace sobre el labio superior. [Hair which sprouts from the upper lip.] ORIGIN Possibly from Arabic bei Got (translated in Spanish as “por Dios” but I can’t find if this is in the sense of “for God” or “oh God”).

Holy hell

Normally I don’t like it when organized religion crops up in places I don’t want it (that would be everywhere), but this word is AMAZING, regardless of what God’s doing there.

Anecdote explained

On a family vacation to Jamaica when I was just a wee lass, I made a funny that became part of my family’s vocabulary. I was walking along the beach with my father and I noticed that we were both wearing blue swim trunks. (His were actual mens trunks, mine were the bottoms from a bikini.) “Somos jamaicas!” I exclaimed, conflating “Jamaican” the nationality with “gemelo” [twin]. I’ve suffered from acute language-fusion my whole life.

Learn something from my mistake

Jamaican people are actually called jamaiquin@ or jamaican@ in Spanish. Remember that the @ in Spanish is used to gender-neutralize words.


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Word Mystery: shower head / alcachofa / pomme de douche

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

Exactly like it happened to me. (Except it not being a bath. And me not being a man. Or Greek. Or bearded. Or super buff.)

Exactly like it happened to me. (Except it not being a bath. And me not being a man. Or Greek. Or bearded. Or super buff.)

Well, that was surprising. Not long after an exchange with Suzanne about what things they’ll find odd when they move back to Canada, I found myself a bit confused in an American shower because I’d unknowingly adapted to those European hand shower nozzle spray things. It was weird to realize that I’d have to turn my actual body around if I wanted to rinse off instead of moving the nozzle around me. A little difference, but one that I never would have expected to get used to since I really hated those damn things for a long time.

Then, like Archimedes before me, I exclaimed “Eureka!” when I realized that there was both a Euro Adapter moment and a Word Mystery just over my head like an idea bulb.

EN → shower head — a perforated nozzle that distributes water over a focal point of use, generally overhead of the bather. ORIGIN of shower: Old English scūr [light fall of rain, hail].

ES → alcachofaPieza agujereada por donde sale el agua de la regadera o de la ducha. [Holey piece from which water comes out in a watering can or the shower.] ORIGIN Hispanicized Arabic al-ḵaršūfa possibly from Pahlavi (Middle Iranian) *hār čōb [spiny stick].

FR → pomme de doucheElément, généralement arrondi, percé de multiples trous. [Generally round piece pierced by multiple holes.] ORIGIN Latin poma [fruit (plural)].

alcachofa showerSpanish Note: the definition given is the seventh of seven listed by the RAE. The first one is for the edible plant “artichoke” but once I learned that I showered under an artichoke every day, this definition became my favorite. If you look at one with this in mind, you can see how it resembles the cross section of a ‘choke.

Today’s Winner: Tough again today. I came into the WM already favoring alcachofa, but I hadn’t known that pomme, a much-used word in French, meant “fruit”. Then I imagined Richard Burton saying scūr (his reading of Beowulf is the only time I’ve actually heard Old English spoken) and I really like the sound of that…so I don’t know. Spanish, I guess? Other opinions welcome.

Since I apparently only reference SNL or Monty Python

It’s worth mentioning that Archimedes is the one who finally initiates the winning goal in the “Philosophers’ Football” sketch, easily my favorite football match of all time. It almost makes me feel bad for the Germans to lose so badly. (Just remember: Don’t mention the war!)

[Ed. The editorial board has determined that a FAWLTY TOWERS reference counts as MONTY PYTHON, so double negative points for lack of originality.]


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Where you @?

Shortly after I arrived in Barcelona in 2005, I was pointed to Spain’s equivalent of Craisglist, Loquo. (There are actual Craigslist sites for Spain, but those are mostly used by foreigners.) On Loquo, I was looking for intercambios (language exchanges) so that I could rapidly access my stored Spanish and jump a level in class.

The personal ads were bewildering. It took me a little while to figure out why: I had never dealt with anybody my own age in Spain, so I had no idea how young people spoke. (The reason I didn’t have friends when I was little and summering in Spain was that my grandparents lived in the middle of nowhere. The whole property was literally surrounds by stone walls and I was way too busy running around in the forest with the dogs and chasing cows and catching grasshoppers to notice that there weren’t other kids around. It was glorious.)

So there I was in my first cyber café, trying to figure out what the hell people were writing about. There were dozens of words and phrases that I’d never heard before and shorthand that I just couldn’t even begin to comprehend, but the use of the @ symbol was the most immediately troubling. What the hell was a chic@?

I asked at school the next day and learned that in Spain, the @ was used to gender-neutralize nouns. Instead of saying girl or guy [chica, chico], you could end the noun with an @ which, handily, looks like both an a and an o. Knowledge!

Learn other things

→ In Spanish, @ is called arroba from the Classic Arabic rub‘ الربع [a quarter part]. I can’t figure out how something that initially denoted a weight was adopted for this purpose.

→ In French, @ is arobase, which comes directly from the Spanish use. Very interesting, that.

→ Despite my feelings about the Washington Post (it’s a shitty paper and probably isn’t going to get better), around the time I was discovering this new use of @, they ran a funny story about other names the symbol has around the world. If only I could get away with saying myname-monkey-chasing-its-tail-gmail-dot-com on a regular basis.


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Word Mystery: albóndiga / mandonguilla / meatball

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?!).

I got a request for my Barcelona travel tips recently which means I had to look for my Barcelona travel tips. Among the many docs I created over the years I was living there for visiting friends and family, I put together a culinary cheat sheet of common lunch items featured on Catalan menus, reminding me of some word mysteries. Continue reading