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: 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.

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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.


Word Mystery: butterfly / mariposa / papillon / farfalla

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

Special request Word Mystery today from a friend of the family (hi Daniel!), so I don’t have an elaborate expat-related setup, but I do have a weird personal anecdote.

photo: Robyn Stacey

photo: Robyn Stacey

My BFF and I decided a million years ago that “butterfly” would be our code word for “help” in any situation. If one of us couldn’t remember another person’s name while talking to them, we’d mention how odd it was that we’d seen a butterfly earlier that day and the other would come to the rescue. If one of us was in a place we didn’t want to stay, we’d casually drop the insect into the conversation and the other person would make an excuse to get us both out of there.

Once this pattern was established, though thousands of miles away from each other, I kept on using “butterfly” as a password. When moving into a new apartment once, we only had one set of keys for three of us over the weekend, so we left them in an envelope in the bar downstairs. (This was in Barcelona, so a bar is really a coffee shop that also sells beer.) I immediately suggested that “mariposa” be the code word to write on the envelope and that the cashier would demand to anyone picking up the keys. It’s the perfect word for all kinds of situations since it’s innocuous, not commonly said, and, as Bart Simpson learned years after I had, “Nobody ever suspects the butterfly.

EN → butterfly — an insect with two pairs of large wings that are covered with tiny scales, usually brightly colored, and typically held erect when at rest. ORIGIN Oooooh, a dispute! One version has it as Old English, from butter + fly, possibly because of the color and/or an old belief that the insects stole butter. Another says that it’s Old English butorflēoge, perhaps a compound of butor [beater] + flēoge [fly].

ES → mariposaInsecto lepidóptero. [Lepidopteran insect.] ORIGIN Mari + posa, Jesus’s mother and verb form of posar [to rest] from Latin pausāre [to rest, pause].

FR → papillonForme adulte des lépidoptères, à l’exception des mites et des teignes. [Adult lepidopterans, excluding moths and mites.] ORIGIN Latin papilio [butterfly, moth].

IT → farfallainsetto dell’ordine dei Lepidotteri con ali dal colore variegato. [Insect of the order Lepidoptera with wings of various colors.] ORIGIN Lombardic dialect (northern Italy/southern Germany), evolved from parpaja, parpalhos.

English note: what fun! The first is definitely a better story but the second makes the most sense.

Spanish note: what a totally disappointing definition, especially considering the great lengths they went to with “turkey.”

Papillon McQueenSpanish note 2: what the hell, Origin? Seriously, I am asking you to explain what the Virgin Mary and resting have to do with an insect, ’cause I’m not seeing it. You should be ashamed of yourself for being so willfully obtuse.

French note: PAPILLON was the first Steve McQueen movie I ever saw. I never understood why he was a sex symbol. He’s got the face of a boxer.

Italian note: The evolution may not seem obvious but /f/ and /p/ are very close sounds.

Italian note 2: I don’t speak Italian. I don’t pretend to speak Italian. I don’t even like Italian. As stated above, this post was a request, one to specifically include the Italian word.

Today’s Winner has to be English, right? It’s got two very good possible origin stories and isn’t religious or Latin, so I’m going with that.

Related in my mind

I held the fastest record in my junior high for being able to recite the ranks of biological/taxonomic classification (while still being understood). This is super useful in Jeopardy!-type situations and not at all the rest of the time. For the record, it’s kingdomphylumclassorderfamilygenusspecies. I can still do it under two seconds, so I must have been even faster way back when.


Word Mystery: left / izquierda / gauche

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

Everything about this pic from Wikipedia is funny to me, esp. her leopard-print shirt.

Everything about this pic from Wikipedia is funny to me, esp. her leopard-print shirt.

Spell It Out by David Crystal is so good, you guys.   If I could, I’d pull almost all the text and reproduce it for you. Every page has at least five interesting things on it that I didn’t know and some pages are non-stop knowledge (like the section detailing where each letter of the English alphabet came from).

But copying the book and pasting it onto this blog would be theft of a kind I don’t promote. Instead, I’ll tell you how I got to today’s Word Mystery while reading Crystal’s opus on orthography.

I was learning that in Old English, every letter was pronounced and that the OE word laf meant “remainder” and I thought, “So *that’s* where that meaning of left comes from ’cause it never did make any sense to me” and then *that’s* when I realized that “left” is a total Word Mystery and that I needed to get it sorted right away.

EN → left — on, toward, or relating to the side of a human body or of a thing that is to the west when the person or thing is facing north. ORIGIN Old English lyft [weak] (the left-hand side being regarded as the weaker side of the body).

ES → izquierdaDicho de una parte del cuerpo humano: Que está situada en el lado del corazón. [Said of a part of the human body which is on the side of the heart.] ORIGIN Basque ezkerra.

FR → gaucheSe dit de toute partie du corps qui, pour un individu, est située du côté de son cœur. [Is said of all parts of the body which, per the individual, is situated on the side of the heart.] ORIGIN Unclear, though it was changed from senestre circa the 15th century. 


First off: the English definition is amazing for being both a totally logical way of describing “left” and also totally Anglo-centric as the English-speaking peoples love cardinal directions so much.

Secondly: Basque, known as Euskara to those who speak it and to the rest of the Iberian peninsula, is the most fascinating language I’ve ever encountered since it has no known connection to any other language. That means that the roots to its words are never Latin. Or Germanic. Or even Hebrew. They up and grew their own way of talking, making them total badasses.

Thirdly: Both Spanish and French describe “left” relative to the placement of the human heart which I guess means that they didn’t have dextrocardia in either country but still knew enough about human anatomy to know where the heart was. 

Fourthly: the French origin is unknown?! What kind of evil is this?

Fifth: I know what kind of evil — the Italian kind! The word for “left” in Italian is sinistra which comes from Latin sinister [left] but from which the regular kind of “sinister” also came because there’s something evil about the left-hand side. (I’m too tired to dig into this more, but I guess it’s something to do with God or Jesus or an old pope or something Catholic for sure.)

Today’s Winner: HOWCANICHOOSE? I can not.


Word Mystery: success / éxito / réussite

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

Every image to illustrate "success" is really cheesy.

Every image to illustrate “success” is really cheesy.

Oh, man. What a year. Except for that time that a North European pickpocket caused me to not have an Internet connection for a million years, I’ve been posting five days a week. This feat impresses me, especially since I didn’t really set out to do it any real sense, like, it wasn’t on my To Do List for 2013. It just kind of happened and I’m pretty psyched about having made it this far. I guess I have an endless supply of dumb stuff to share. Like today’s knowledge crumbs!

success — the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. ORIGIN from Latin successus, from the verb succedere [come close after].

éxitoResultado feliz de un negocio, actuación, etc. [Favorable result in a business dealing, performance, etc.] ORIGIN Latin exĭtus [exit].

réussiteBon succès. [Good success.] ORIGIN Borrowed from Italian riuscita [success] from uscita [exit], this from Latin exire [to leave/exit] from ex- + eo [go outside of].

Huh. I’ve got to admit that this is the most puzzling Word Mystery yet. I don’t really understand any of the evolutions, and that they all come from Latin makes it somehow more frustrating. What does leaving have to do with accomplishment? George Costanza is the only connection I can make between the two ideas, and he came a few years after the Latin language developed so I’m stymied.

Today’s Winner: Latin, obviously, since it showed me that just when I thought I was so clever and productive, I’m the same idiot I was when I started writing this damn blog.