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 Outlier: tree

Tree in Place Vendôme, December 2013

Tree in Place Vendôme, December 2013

It’s Christmas-in-July all week! Get festive!

O, Christmas Tree
O, Christmas Tree
…why are you a “tree”?

EN tree —a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground. ORIGIN Old English trēow, trēo: from a Germanic variant of an Indo-European root shared by Greek doru [wood, spear] drus [oak].

The Spanish árbol and French arbre both come from the Latin (of course) arbor. Despite generally being annoyed with Latin (it’s in everything!), I find the English evolution to be suspect. I no longer like the word “tree.”


Word Mystery: watch / reloj / montre

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

RIP my watch. (2014 is apparently the year many of my things retire.)


I got this watch on Avinguda Josep Tarradelles in Barcelona many years ago for 40€. It was a temporary replacement for my real watch whose bevel case had cracked but the damn replacement wouldn’t stop working! For many years, it was my trusty companion, alerting me to when my students’ hour-long classes were drawing to a close from its discreet spot next to my water bottle.

Shortly after I arrived in France, it started losing time which I thought was apt since I was taking a break from working to just relax a bit and see how I felt about things. It was a while before I figured out where in Lyon one buys a watch battery (the Part Dieu shopping mall!) and after I replaced it, the damn thing still kept running for a few more years.

Last year, it started losing time again, but a new lease on life battery didn’t make it work any better, so it has to go to watch heaven. There’s some kind of easy Proust joke about time, lost, remembered and otherwise here, but I won’t disrespect an honorable timepiece by making fun of it.

EN → watch — a small timepiece worn typically on a strap on one’s wrist. ORIGIN Old English wæcce [watchfulness]. The sense ‘small timepiece’ probably developed by way of a sense “alarm device attached to a clock.”

ES → relojMáquina dotada de movimiento uniforme, que sirve para medir el tiempo o dividir el día en horas, minutos y segundos. [Machine equipped with uniform movement which serves to measure time or divide the day into hours, minutes and seconds.] ORIGIN Scandal! The RAE won’t give any kind of origin info, but another site I frequently use tells a good and logical story. Reloj is probably derived from the Greek oorologion [list of hours] but the evolution to end in -j is “controversial.” (Only one other word in Spanish ends in -j — which my mother is probably saying under her breath right now — carcaj [quiver for arrows].

FR → montrePetit appareil portatif, fonctionnant dans toutes les positions, servant à donner l’heure et d’autres indications. [Small portable apparatus, which works in all positions, which serves to tell the time and give other indications.] ORIGIN From the verb montrer [to show / demonstrate].

English note: a thing I like about English is that it differentiates between a clock and watch. Unless you’re Flavor Flav, they aren’t the same thing.

Spanish note: I’m not even gonna pretend — a scandal in the etymology community guarantees a win, so Spain runs away with it today.

French note: the “it works in all directions / senses” is a weird thing to me. It’s not like watches are space pens. Why wouldn’t you be able to read one upside down? Why was this particular feature called out in the definition? Totally weird.

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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.


Alpian Way Loot

This loot came from New York via Geneva, Switzerland so I wasn’t sure what to call it. Running a search through my brain, I couldn’t come up with any good movie connections or even mildly amusing puns related to Switzerland…which is kind of Switzerland all over. Everyone’s very friendly and everything’s very clean but the place is not exciting.

Loot Swiss

  • New York Public Library tote bag 
  • Coach wrist bag  
  • 2 pairs of Smartwool socks
  • The First Year: Rheumatoid Arthritis: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed 

Things to be learned from this collection

  • One can never have enough tote bags.
  • Due to the Paris metro card’s sensitivity to magnets, I can’t carry mine in any of my bags, hence, wrist bag.
  • In the sock business, you get what you pay for. I had to throw out the four pairs I got from JCrew last autumn because they had no elastic.
  • Everything, even medical ailments, can be solved if you have the right book.

Things I’ve already learned from my book: it knows I love etymology and torturing myself!

RA book excerpt

It’s like it sees into my soul.


Word Mystery: shop / tienda / boutique

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

My German friend doesn’t like France, the French people or the French language. I suspect there are cultural and geographical things at the root of her feelings (she grew up not too far from the border) but I try not to get into it with her.

We were in Luxembourg together once, a charming place that looks like a fairy tale setting. Having missed the tourist bus, we decided to explore the city ourselves and just started walking around, looking at things. “This is what I mean!” she exclaimed as we ambled down a cobblestone street. “All of these shops say ’boutique’ just because it sounds more expensive!”


To be fair, everything here *is* really expensive.

I had to break it to her that the shops weren’t trying to be fancy by saying they were boutiques (as she’d seen when she lived in the US), but that “boutique” was the correct word for “shop.” To her credit, she was a little bit surprised and then laughed at her own assumption.

She still isn’t buying what the French are selling, but let’s see if you’ll have some of what she doesn’t want.

EN → shop — 1) a building or part of a building where goods or services are sold; a store. ORIGIN Middle English shortening of Old French eschoppe [lean-to booth] from Dutch schoppe.

ES → tienda4) Casa, puesto o lugar donde se venden al público artículos de comercio al por menor. [House, office or other place where goods are sold to the public at retail prices.] ORIGIN Latin tendĕre [stretch, spread, extend].

FR → boutique1) Local où se tient un commerce de détail, où exerce un artisan. [Retail space or where an artisan works and sells his wares.] ORIGIN Old Provençal (Southern French dialect related to Occitan) botica from Greek apothêkê [storehouse].

English note: In the US, it’s more common to call a place to buy things a “store,” but I wrote about stores on another day and didn’t want to return to the same material. Both words are used but, try as I might, I can’t logically figure out why some combinations are more common than others. For example, I’d never say “flower store” or “butcher store” but I’d also never say “grocery shop” or “corner shop.”

Spanish note: I like that the origin calls up images of merchandise spread out to be looked at. It’s less common now, but when I was younger, most shops we went to in Spain had all of their wares displayed in the windows and you looked from outside and only entered if you’d identified something you wanted. The arrangements were meticulous and required innumerable pins and layering and tiny prices next to sets of items. It was really something.

French note: Another good origin. If pressed, I would have guessed that “apothecary” was Greek, but I’ve only ever thought of it in conjunction with the man who gives Romeo the sleeping potion and assumed that it meant “pharmacist” or “olde tyme medicine man.” Color me wrong and corrected.

Catalan note: the word’s botiga, and like so many Catalan words I know, it’s my favorite of the bunch.

Today’s Winner could be any of the three, really. I like all of the stories and especially like that there is so much cross-polination represented and so many different ideas evolving slowly to be one thing… but, just because my friend gives them such a hard time, I’m going to give it to the French.