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: 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.


Word Mystery: grocery / épicerie / supermercado

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

Clearly, the title was captivated me when I saw it in my Scholastic book order catalog.

Clearly, the title captivated me when I saw it in my Scholastic book order catalog.

Grocery stores are some of my favorite places. I love prowling through the aisles and looking at all the stuff. I love the weird foods you can find in little ethnic groceries. I love the vast differences in quality, price and selection you get between any two locations. When family comes to visit, a trip to my local store is almost always on the agenda as being into food stores is apparently genetic.*

But I also just love the word grocery because it’s got good mouth-feel. (Let it roll around for a while and I’m sure you’ll agree.) Another part of my fondness for the word is connected to books I read as a kid where the town grocer was a character the kid protagonists interacted with a lot. I’m pretty sure J. D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series had a person like this in them and I loved those books to pieces. Literally, the covers fell off and everything.

EN → grocery — the store of a person who sells food and small household goods. ORIGIN Middle English (originally ‘a person who sold things in the gross’ from late Latin grossus [gross].

ES  supermercado — Establecimiento comercial de venta al por menor en el que se expenden todo género de artículos alimenticios, bebidas, productos de limpieza, etc., y en el que el cliente se sirve a sí mismo y paga a la salida. [Business where goods of all kinds are sold to the public in which the customers help themselves and pay at the exit.] ORIGIN English “supermarket.”

FR  épicerie — Commerce, magasin où l’on vend des produits de consommation courante. [Business or shop where commonly used items are sold.] ORIGIN From épice [spice].

Clarification #1 — In English, a supermarket is defined as “a large self-service store selling foods and household goods.” The things which are interesting to me are “large” and “self-service” because I hadn’t really ever considered what made them “super.”

Clarification #2 — This may be an American thing, just as we prefer “stores” to the UK’s “shops,” but I use “grocery store” and “supermarket” interchangeabley. Most people I know just say they’re “going to the store” meaning, the place for food-buying. This could be a Midwesternism too, but I don’t think it’s limited to just the Central Time Zone.

Clarification #3 — That the Spanish word is the newest of the lot isn’t that surprising. It’s still very common to buy your food at multiple specialized shops and people generally go to supermarkets to stock up on shelf-stable goods like cereal and drinks. You’re always better off buying your meat, fish, fruits, veg and baked products elsewhere.

Today’s shocking verdict: English wins because this is my blog and I make the damn rules around here.

* To be fair, this may have all started when a brand new 24-hour StarMarket (Stah-Mahket) opened up in my first Boston neighborhood. The place was amazing. It had a whole made-to-order food court area inside where you could get stir fry and sushi and pasta and pizza and roasted meats with all the fixings prepped for you while you shopped. And the aisles were endless and often filled with me and my friends running up and down them having shopping cart races in the middle of the night. Now it looks totally dated and rundown, but when it was new, my she was yar.

It's hard to believe this was once a new temple at which I worshipped the food gods.

It’s hard to believe this was once the temple at which I worshipped the food gods.


Word Mystery: Band-Aid / tirita / pansement / plaster

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

Biking a lot means cuts and bruises. Many of the trails I’m riding are in the woods, so scrapes are something I’m having to deal with a lot more than usual. That’s why I picked up these totally cool looking scrape-cover-uppers at the store and thought, “Hmmm. Pansement‘s a weird word. I wonder what the story is there.” And now I give you the story.


EN → Band-Aid® (adhesive bandage) — an adhesive bandage with a gauze pad in the center, used to cover minor wounds. ORIGIN This product aids someone in bandaging themselves. Previous to this invention, bandaging was done by a second party.

ES → tirita®Tira adhesiva por una cara, en cuyo centro tiene un apósito esterilizado que se coloca sobre heridas pequeñas para protegerlas. [Adhesive strip on one side with a sterile pad in the center which is placed over small wounds to protect them.] ORIGIN Appears to be a portmanteau of tira adhesiva sanitaria [sterile adhesive strip]. A Catalan entrepreneur (visca Catalunya!) started selling a version of the American product in 1954.

FR → pansementEnsemble des éléments appliqués sur une plaie pour la protéger de l’infection et pour favoriser sa cicatrisation. [Combination of things applied to a wound to protect it from infection and promote healing.] ORIGIN From panser [to take care of].

Interesting trio today. The French is the only one of the three that wasn’t a registered trademark that passed into common usage. The English one actually made me think and realize something I’d never considered. The Catalan one made me happy because some dude blatantly copied something a clumsy American housewife invented and made a mint. I’m giving him the win for being an opportunist.

Sing something

When Spanish children are injured, the common thing to say to them is this little rhyme

Sana sana, culito de rana, si no sanas hoy, sanaras mañana.

[Healing, healing, little frog’s butt, if it doesn’t heal today, it’ll heal tomorrow.]

My sister was embarrassed fairly recently when some Latin American people she knows laughed at her, saying that the correct words are “colita de rana” [frog’s tail], but they’re totally wrong. The point of the song is to distract children from the pain by saying something silly and, most importantly, frogs don’t have tails. Not even the ones called “tailed frogs.”

UPDATE: As expatlingo commented, the British do indeed use “sticking plaster” instead of Band-Aid. This is because the Band-Aid was invented in the US and we wouldn’t share with them! Nah, I’m just kidding. It’s because the Brits used gauze that had been treated in a light plaster mix to protect wounds. When moistened, it would stick around the wound. Think of a plaster cast, but more flexible and less sanitary. “Plaster” comes from the Greek emplastron [daub, salve].


Word Mystery: rubber / goma / caoutchouc

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?!).

Stretch Armstong was all about rubber and plastic.

Stretch Armstrong was all about rubber and plastic.

Thinking about peanuts (ES cacahuetes, FR cacahuètes) gets me thinking about rubber for reasons that will (hopefully) become clear in a moment.

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Union Jack + punk + plaid =

It must have been around the time of the great Thomas’ English Muffin recipe lawsuit that I asked a UK-born co-worker if he’d ever had an English muffin. “A woa?” he asked, being pretty British.

Turns out they’re not so English, much as bagels aren’t really American. Not to belabor the issue but crumpets are totally another thing and are indeed “English.”

Found these at Monoprix which is a chain of very nice grocery stores that have like a small Target in them.

They’re on the less-good side of okay, and they certainly aren’t like Thomas’. That recipe is totally worth protecting since they’ve got a good thing going’ over there.