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: Christmas / Navidad / Noël

Wednesdays, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages. This week is all about that most rockin’ of holidays, so our WM is clear.

2013 Xmas doorTrue Story

On December 11th of 2013, I walked out my apartment and locked the door. As I pulled the key out and turned to head to the elevator, I saw my neighbor’s door and heard myself say, “Bah!”

Except for the being super-wealthy, miserable and unhappy, I am totally a Scrooge.

EN → Christmas — the annual Christian festival celebrating Christ’s birth, held on December 25 in the Western Church. ORIGIN Old English Crīstes mæsse.

ES → NavidadNatividad de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo. [The birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.] ORIGIN Latin nativĭtas [of Christ, birth, nativity].

FR → NoëlFête de la naissance de Jésus-Christ. [Celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.] ORIGIN Latin natalis dies [day of birth].

English note: how much of a heathen am I that I never put together the Christ’s Mass thing? A really big one. This doesn’t even count as a rabies since there is honestly no way I will ever make religious connections on my own. Hell, I didn’t even see all the Christian messaging in The Chronicles of Narnia until I was a teenager!

Spanish note: I never liked that “lord” and “señor” are equivalents in some instances, but that’s ‘cause I don’t like anyone to think they can lord over me. I’m independent! You can’t oppress me!

French note: logical, inoffensive and not originally all Christ-y. The clear winner. So clear, you could navigate three suspiciously ethnically diverse dudes on camels by its light.

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This very bar.

This very bar.

GIRL is at a dive bar with many of her coworkers. It’s the birthday party for GIRL’s BOSS.

Boss’s GIRLFRIEND approaches GIRL, beaming hugely.


You must be Maya! I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you!

GIRL is momentarily confused. MAYA is an Indian girl who is on the same staff. Then GIRL remembers that GIRLFRIEND is a Midwesterner and therefore not used to people who aren’t variations on milk-colored.


No, I’m the *other* brown girl on staff. I’m Spanish. From Spain. Not Indian.

GIRLFRIEND makes a face like she swallowed half a lemon.


Oh — no — I didn’t mean — It’s — I —


Clearly, Boss hasn’t mentioned me. It’s good to know that he favors Maya, even at home.

GIRL is patient. GIRLFRIEND will need a few moments to understand what’s been said, to glean the subtext. GIRL waits.


Oh. Wait — what?

GIRL sighs. GIRLFRIEND is too dense or simple or trusting or blind to figure out what GIRL is saying.

(indicating across the room)

Maya’s over there. She’s the Indian-looking one. Like from India.

GIRLFRIEND continues to look stricken. Suddenly, she spins around and races across the bar to GIRL’S BOSS, her body language suggesting she is near tears.

(to herself)

Jesus Christ. I can’t deal with these people anymore.


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.

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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.


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.