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: puddle / charco / flaque

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

Nicer to look at than a puddle.

Nicer to look at than a puddle.

I feel like it rains all the time here. Near constant rain or the threat of rain hangs over my head all day long. In the latter cases, when the sky does finally break open and dump its contents directly on me, it’s almost a relief since the tension and anticipation is over and I can just go about my business.

In English, there’s a common children’s couplet that goes, “Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.” There’s also a saying (at least in the US) that “April showers bring May flowers.”

Well, it’s May and it’s still raining and I don’t even like flowers so I don’t know what to do with myself…except splash in puddles since if I’m gonna be wet, I may as well get properly soaked.

EN puddle — a small pool of liquid, esp. of rainwater on the ground. ORIGIN Middle English: diminutive of Old English pudd [ditch, furrow].

ES charcoAgua, u otro líquido, detenida en un hoyo o cavidad de la tierra o del piso. [Water or other liquid, held in a space or an indentation in the ground or on the floor.] ORIGIN onomatopoeia.

FR flaquepetite mare ou petite nappe de liquide stagnant. [Small pond or sheet of stagnant water.] ORIGIN The Picard language (region in northern France) version of Old French flache [soft].

French note: mind blown. The origin in French read forme picarde and my brain went to “picaresque” which made little sense. After realizing it was a region of France (I really do need to study regional geography more), I wondered what connection it may have to the amazing French frozen-food chain Picard. There isn’t one. Picard is just a fairly common last name.

I don’t know who today’s winner is, though it’s definitely not Spanish. I kind of like pudd, but the French definition is so nice that maybe I should give it to them? I guess I’ll do that.

Monty Python note: Terry Gilliam will be taking another running joust at his version of QUIJOTE in 2015. I can’t wait.


Great Word: snicker

snicker — give a smothered or half-suppressed laugh; snigger.

ORIGIN imitative (: reproducing a natural sound).

My post-college best friend and I got to know each other because, like so many before him, he was drawn to my total lack of interest in just about everyone around me. (As we’ve discussed before, this is because I don’t like strangers.)

Back when I was employed in the US, I was temporarily assigned to the cubicle next to his. He quickly found himself trying to see what I was doing since, to hear him tell it, there was a steady stream of snickering coming from my side of the particle board. Whenever he was able to casually figure out what I was reading, he’d try to find the same article and see what was so damn funny. Most of the time, he couldn’t understand what was so entertaining in the A-section of the New York Times but he marveled at my consistent amusement.

A perfect example of something from the NYT that makes me snicker.

This pic and its caption is a perfect example of something from the NYT that makes me snicker.

Once we got to know each other better, he learned that the mystery of my mirth is that I find the funny in everything, a variation on that all-time great whistling anthem. (C’mon! It’s been ages since I mentioned the Python boys!)


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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Lookit! French Fazer mints!

We always had chocolate covered mint things like Andes Candies and Fazers at home when I was little. The Fazers, which I continue to call “Frazers,” loom larger in my memory so they must have been more infrequent and therefore more special.

Even though I don’t really like mint-flavored things and I’d rather not have any chocolate than have to eat dark, the nostalgic part of me craves these things sometimes and now, I have a replacement.

Learn Something

→ Fazers/Frazers are Finnish! I basically know nothing about Finland other than what’s in Monty Python’s “The Finland Song.” The Internet just told me that it used to be an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia. (This is crazy in the senses of being insane and amazing that I had no idea about this before.)

Anyway, a guy named Karl Fazer (Frazer) opened a café in Helsinki in 1891 and he and his wife started making their own chocolates a few years later.

→ Andes mints have nothing at all to do with South America and everything to do with a guy from Chicago called Andy Kanelos. He had a candy store in 1921 that made the chocolates, but since then, the brand has been owned by Interfood, Jacob Suchard, Brach’s and is now part of the Tootsie Roll family of candies which are the worst. Learning this has totally killed my affection for Andes.



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Word Mystery: cold / catarro / rhume

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

DOWNTON ABBEY returned to British screens this past Sunday, reminding me that I hadn’t yet addressed the Spanish flu. “Wait, what?” you’re probably saying.

In a 2011 episode of the second season of the popular ITV show, now in its fourth year, several characters contract the Spanish flu and one conveniently dies of it. Once I got over how incredibly dumb and poorly plotted the show had become, I was pissed at how everyone was so casually blaming all these dumb contrivances on the Spanish, when they had nothing to do with the flu (except dying of it, like everyone else).

The reason the 1918 H1N1 flu, which killed between 3 and 5% of the world’s population, was known as “Spanish” was because the most press coverage about the epidemic came from Spain…but not because there was more flu there than elsewhere. It was because the rest of Western civilization was busy fighting in a war and wartime censoring precluded the journalists from reporting anything bad that was happening on the home front. I guess they thought that if everyone was busy with their victory gardens, no one would notice that all their neighbors were dropping dead.

Unless you believe in the coming zombie apocalypse, the chances of you catching such a deadly virus are slim. But the chances of you getting sick in the coming months are high because non-lethal flu season is nigh.

To the WordMystery Machine!

EN → cold — a common viral infection in which the mucous membrane of the nose and throat becomes inflamed, typically causing running at the nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and other similar symptoms. ORIGIN related to Dutch koud and German kalt.

ES → catarroInflamación aguda o crónica de las membranas mucosas, con aumento de la secreción habitual de moco. [Acute or chronic inflammation of the mucus membranes, with an increase in secretion of mucus.] ORIGIN Latin catarrhus [flow, leak].

FR → rhumeInflammation des muqueuses des voies respiratoires, rarement accompagnée de fièvre ou de faiblesse. [Inflammation of the mucus membranes, occasionally accompanied by fever or weakness.] ORIGIN Latin rheuma [flux, flow].

Weird that Spanish and French both come from Latin words meaning “flow” but not the same one. It’s like another Word Mystery incepted this one! Just for that, I’m giving the win to English for being awesome and not knowing whether its antecedent is Dutch or German. (I suggest a paternity test.)

Girl, you know it’s true

DOWNTON is a terrible program (programme). Part of the cultural conversation surrounding television in recent years has been about the division between character driven shows and plot driven ones. DOWNTON fails on both counts. The characters, while dressed beautifully and artfully placed inside gorgeous settings, don’t exhibit the same traits from one episode or season to the next, have no institutional memory and are generally eligible for Upper Class Twit of the Year. The plots, such as they purport to exist, stretch and contract, depending on the whims of a madman (Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes) and don’t occur organically or on a reasonable timeframe. Honestly: how many YEARS passed between Mary and Matthew meeting and that thing that happened at the end of last season? Consider how many other characters DID NOTHING during that whole period. It’s mind-boggling how dumb the whole enterprise is. And now they’ve added a Cousin Oliver! An Oliver, for god’s sake!

But it sure is pretty to look at. Also: dog butt every week!

→ A good account of the likely series of events that led to the spreading of the “Spanish flu” here (spoiler: it probably started in the Midwest).