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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Wherefore art thou SoHo/Soho?

My brother moved to New York in the late 80s when it was still pretty awesome. He lived in Manhattan in an area called Alphabet City because the streets there are lettered (map). At the time, there were drug dealers on his block, there was a salvage yard catty-corner from his place and the eating and drinking establishments were occupied by people who weren’t tattooed ironically. Like I said, it was pretty awesome.

The southern border of the area is Houston Street which, still being very much a Midwesterner the first time I went, I pronounced like the city in Texas: Hewston. Dead giveaway. It’s House-ton and provides the line between NoHo (North of Houston) and SoHo (South of Houston). That part’s easy to figure out, but when I came across London’s area called Soho (note lack of capitalization on the H) I couldn’t make heads or tails of why it was called that. Whenever I remembered, I asked people who’d lived in London or were English and they hadn’t known, so the question lingered.

Of course, this was long before the magic that is the Internet existed. Now, most knowledge ever possessed by English-speaking people is readily available so I can report that Soho, like tallyho, was a hunting cry and that both have “ho” in common with the Spanish hola.

Boom! Knowledge!

Boom! Knowledge!


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Word Mystery: to be / ser / être

Word Mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

chickenhamlet2The last time I was in London, a city I don’t generally care for, I went to see a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was pretty incredible and made me think that perhaps I should go back more often just to see the stories done justice by actual Brits.

Of course, my favorite of the Bard’s works is “Hamlet” primarily because it’s eminently quotable and can be interjected into everyday conversation. However, being a sick puppy, I also love it because it checks two boxes on the list of things I like in stories: the lovers are never together and everybody dies or is miserable at the end. Unhappy endings are the best.

And so, on to today’s Word Mystery, inspired by Hamlet’s most famous line, “To be, or not to be.”

EN → to be — exist. ORIGIN Old English bēon, an irregular and defective verb, whose full conjugation derives from several originally distinct verbs. The forms am and is are from an Indo-European root shared by Latin sum and est. The forms was and were are from an Indo-European root meaning ‘remain.’ The forms be and been are from an Indo-European root shared by Latin fui ‘I was,’ fio ‘I become’ and Greek phuein ‘bring forth, cause to grow.’ The origin of are is uncertain.

ES → ser — Haber o existir. [To be, to exist.] ORIGIN Latin essere [to be, to exist].

FR → être — Avoir une réalité, exister. [To be real, to exist.] ORIGIN Latin essere [to be], from Latin stare [stand].

I think English wins today’s WM, just on the basis of complexity.

Hamlet - Calvin and Hobbes


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Word Mystery: zipper / cremallera / fermeture Éclair

Word Mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

I thought YKK invented zippers.

I thought YKK invented zippers.

If I were one of those proverbial typing monkeys who eventually write Shakespeare, I would still never have guessed the origins of today’s words inspired by yesterday’s childhood memory.

EN → zipper — a device consisting of two flexible strips of metal or plastic with interlocking projections closed or opened by pulling a slide along them, used to fasten garments, bags, and other items.
ORIGIN: 1925, probably from ‘zip.’ The trademark taken out on the name that year applied to a boot with zippers, not to the “lightning fastener” itself, which was at first called a zip. [source]

ES cremallera — Barra metálica con dientes en uno de sus cantos, para engranar con un piñón. [Metal strip with teeth on one side and gears on the other.]
Del francés crémaillère [from the French crémaillère: rack and pinion mechanism].

FR fermeture Éclair — Fermeture à glissière de la marque Éclair. [Sliding closing mechanism by the Éclair brand.] The “e” should always be capitalized as it’s a brand name.

The first zippers were developed in the US (U-S-A! U-S-A!) in 1891. You can read more about the evolution of zippers in last month’s NYT Magazine.

UPDATE: How many zipper-related injuries would you guess there were in a ten-year study? If you said 17,616 you were right.


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Bombing in French

I still haven’t cracked the code on what is funny to an average French person. This actually bums me out a bit since I like to make other people laugh (intentionally).

So, what happened was there were these tomatoes at the grocery store and since I’m a sucker for fruit that’s grown in a weird way, I had to get them.

They're inherently amusing, non?

They’re inherently amusing, non?

At the checkout, the cashier was as charmed as I had been. “Look at this,” she said to me. “How often do you see something like this?” She called across the front of the store to her colleague. “When’s the last time you saw two tomatoes connected like this? Never, right?”

Her level of amusement had quickly surpassed mine, but she’s a friendly person and maybe these tomatoes had made her day, so I continued to play along. “They’re brothers,” I said. “Twins.” It was enough for me that I’d remembered how to say twins in French, but she went the way I’d been heading. “Siamoises!” she cried. “Or maybe they’re in love!” she continued, looking at me since it was my turn to say something.

And this is where things fell apart because I was thinking about how I was going to prepare the tomatoes when I got home which would necessitate separating them and I said, “They’re Romeo and Juliet; together, but destined to be apart. Because I’m going to cut them.”

And that was the end of fun times at the grocery store for the day.


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This is my pea coat.

peacoat 1There are many like it, but this one is mine. My pea coat is my favorite coat. It keeps me warm in coldest weather. Without me, my pea coat is useless. Without my pea coat, I am cold.

peacoat 2I got this coat about a decade ago from the J.Crew clearance catalog. (Do they still mail out catalogs?) There may no longer be many like it in use, though I’ve found it to be incredibly durable. The general construction of the garment is quite good. As you can see, the only wear has been caused by my general insistence to sit on the back of the coat to protect my bum from cold surfaces. Someday, maybe I’ll darn those spots. (Out, darned spots!)

The big selling point for me at the time was that the coat was lined with Thinsulate™, one of the great wonders of the modern world (as far as I’m concerned). I remember there was a non-Thinsulate™ version and I thought then (as I do now) what the hell the point of such a thing is.

peacoat 3Thinsulate™ alone would have been enough to make me favor this coat over the dozen I have for winter wear (each one has a specialized use, I swear!) but this coat earned my enduring love for a secret detail that I didn’t discover right away: an inside breast pocket. In case you don’t know, the percentage of women’s clothes that have an inside pocket is 0. No women’s clothing has enough or appropriately sized pockets. Apparently, designers think that since we carry bags, we don’t need to keep things on our persons. Well, I for one love having the option to go bag-free and this coat is the perfect thing. Back when I still smoked, I could put my wallet in the inside pocket, my smokes and lighter in the left one, keys and phone in the right and gloves in the top hand-warmers. And all was well. And warm.

Learn something, you maggot!

Full Metal Jacket, whose “This is my rifle” speech inspired this post, was filmed entirely in England. Stanley Kubrick was American. There is a Christmas scene in this movie which makes it eligible for my Unconventional Xmas film series.