Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


The doubling makes all the difference

Here’s some graffiti from central Paris that’s either a misspelled comment on someone having a bubble butt or is about someone who takes exception to Michael Bublé. The beauty of life in Paris is that it could just as easily be either.

Notre-Dame and the spire of Sainte-Chapelle in the background.

Notre-Dame and the spire of Sainte-Chapelle in the background.

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Word Mystery: ice cream cone / cucurucho / cornet

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

In the summer time, when the weather is warm…I am frequently too damn hot to eat dinner. Sometimes, half a kilo of strawberries is a meal, other times, I’ll grab a sorbet on the way home to cool myself off from the inside out.

Earlier this week, I had a scoop of citron for dinner, but it didn’t compare to the delicious cassis I used to get in Lyon after a hard ride on a sunny day.



Nothing beats cooling my brain off after sorting out a Word Mystery though (I tell myself in the hopes that it’ll be true).

EN → ice cream cone — an edible wafer container shaped like a cone in which ice cream is served. ORIGIN late Middle English (denoting an apex or vertex): from French cône, from Greek kōnos .

ES → cucuruchoPapel, cartón, barquillo, etc., arrollado en forma cónica, empleado para contener dulces, confites, helados, cosas menudas. [Paper, cardboard, wafer, etc. rolled in conical form, used to contain candies, pastries, ice cream or small things.] ORIGIN From an Italian dialect’s cucuruccio.

FR → cornetGaufrette conique que l’on garnit de glace. [Conical waffle which is filled with ice cream.] ORIGIN Diminutive of corne, this from Low Latin corna [cone, horn].

English note: the origin reminds me of a time during my ESL teaching days in Barcelona. Another teacher poked her head out of her classroom and asked if anyone knew another word for “top” to help her class complete an exercise. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said, “Tip, apex, peak, acme, zenith, summit, climax, pinnacle. Do any of those work?” Everyone around me was shocked, but they didn’t even realize the super-scary thing I’d done. As an avid crossword-puzzler, I’d listed the synonyms in ascending order of letters. My mind is a terrifying place, full of words and oddness.

Spanish note: Italian, eh? I guess ice cream came by boat to Spain. Figures. There aren’t any good native desserts there. (I think flan is yuck to the max.)

French note: this was a little bit of a cheat today since I was fairly certain going in that “cone” would have a French connection, but I make no apologies.

C’mon. Do you even have to ask who today’s winner is? Have you *tried* saying cucurucho out loud? If you do, I guarantee that it’ll be one of the best things that comes out of your mouth all day.


The pros and cons of copyediting

thumbs up and downA recent editing job presented me with the following line in a medical-supply catalog:

secret antibacterial repellant material

My initial reaction was one of horror. What kind of secret stuff were they trying to sell? And who or what was being repelled? Once I settled down, I wrote the client a nice little note, asking for clarification on what the item in question was and gently suggesting that nothing in the medical industry should be advertised as “secret” as the word implied withholding information and didn’t engender trust.

What I got back made things much more clear, though not a lot less graphic. The product is a material placed on gurneys, stretchers, hospital beds, etc. Its purpose is not to absorb anything, specifically secretions, what in English we politely call “bodily fluids.”

This reminded me of an old client / student in Barcelona who asked me to look over the CV he’d paid to have translated. He was applying for a big job at a UK bank and wanted it “top shop.” (He meant “ship-shape,” a phrase I’d mentioned a few weeks prior.)

Under the heading of Other Responsibilities was “Exclusive personal affairs.” I was surprised. He seemed like he was happily married, so I asked him to explain what, precisely, that was supposed to mean. In the end, along with a lot of other changes, I amended the line to read “In charge of personnel issues.”

Clear something up

The in a word’s pronunciation guide indicates that the stress on the word comes just after the mark. In this manner, we have “su-KREET” and “SEE-cret.” Spelling makes a huge difference in many cases, but not always.

secrete |siˈkrēt| — (of a cell, gland, or organ) produce and discharge (a substance).
secret |ˈsēkrit| — not known or seen or not meant to be known or seen by others.

ship-shape — in good order; trim and neat.

personal |ˈpərsənəl| — of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else.
personnel |ˌpərsəˈnel| — people employed in an organization or engaged in an organized undertaking.

→ In case you were thinking it, today’s post title was inspired by Roger Waters’s “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.”

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More Word Nerdery!

wordnerdIt’s been a while since I’ve shared the lexical love.

→ I don’t like THE SOUND OF MUSIC but palindromes and anagrams are a few of my favorite things.

→ Style guides are the things that codify standards of vocabulary, spellings, punctuation, etc. for writers. The MLA is a good one for students, but if you’re in the news biz, your media conglomerate has one or follows one. The AP Stylebook (which I had next to my computers both at work and at home for many years) has made changes. This doesn’t affect you, but it’s fun to see olde fashioned rules get the boot and read about why they existed in the first place.

→ Ever looked for words that end the same way as other words? If you have, you’ve probably used rhyming dictionaries, but what if you want ALL the words that end the same way, or begin the same way, or have the same letter combinations? What if you’re cheating (let’s call a thing what it is) on a crossword and know some of the letters but can’t figure out the word? More Words is on the interwebs to help you!

→ John McIntyre may be my spirit animal. He writes about “language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics” and calls out bad editing (my hero!) and is probably the inspiration for the only good character to come out of the final season of THE WIRE.

→ On the correct and “correct” use of quotes. These, like sarcasm, are things that non-native English speakers don’t understand in written form. It doesn’t help matters that there are many non-standard uses.

→ Pitchfork on “The #Art of the Hashtag” and how it’s changing how we communicate. #stuffithinkaboutalot

→ Thoughts on people who are too prescriptivist about grammar and spelling. Many fine points are made about people who get too worked up over mistakes, but he doesn’t address my main concern. Basic errors hinder comprehension and distract from the message being conveyed. Additionally, mistakes cause readers to doubt the trustworthiness of a source and that _is_ something which should concern writers and editors and doesn’t make someone a “Grammar Nazi.” It just makes them thoughtful, critical readers and writers.


The best insult I’ve heard in ages

MuppetBabies-BabyAnimalIn his 2012 standup special “Dangerously Delicious,” Aziz Ansari of PARKS AND REC, tells a story about an exchange he had with a mean border control agent he came across in Toronto, Canada. Not nice things were said by both parties, but things really escalated when Ansari said* the greatest thing I’ve heard in a long time:

“Your English is slightly better than Animal from The Muppet Babies.”

As with many things, it’s the specificity that takes this from a schoolyard insult to a serious burn. According to the Muppet Wiki, Animal from THE MUPPET SHOW “speaks in a guttural shout, often repeating a few simple phrases¹,” which would be enough to belittle most people. But this poor woman was less articulate than that. Compare classic Animal with some of his younger work and see if you agree.

On a personal note, I hope you all appreciate this joke because after researching this post, my childhood was rocked by the information that Baby Animal, as he’s officially known, was initially voiced by Howie Mandel (who did Gizmo in GREMLINS) and then Dave Coulier (the annoying uncle on FULL HOUSE). I have seen behind the Muppet Babies curtain and can never go back.

I was laughing, now I'm not.

I was laughing, now I’m not.

*He surely didn’t say this and the comment was most likely an esprit de l’escalier thing but it’s still funny as hell. I am going to picture this the next time I deal with people whose speech I don’t understand.

Animal Muppet Babies