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: gos / dog / perro / chien

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

Someone recently told me that I was “very brave” for quitting a good job in the US and moving to Europe. I didn’t want to get into specifics with them, but once the idea was planted in my head by a friend of mine, leaving the US was the only way forward for me.

One of the big reasons was that I realized that my goals in life were 1) to be happy more often than not and 2) to have a dog. Professional accolades and upward mobility and the admiration of my peers are things I don’t care about at all and which consume the American way of life. Having a bigger house, a better car and the most prodigious children are all things I actively don’t want and which a lot of people obsess about.

A handsome perro I used to know.

A handsome perro I used to know.

But a dog would be good for me (requiring me to get up at regular times every day) and having one is something I’ve thought about for so long that I’ve decided on many different names. An early contender was Aslan, but I’m too old for Narnia now. Once in Spain, I thought Huxley would be funny since “H” is a hard sound for them to make, but in recent years I’ve settled on the perfect name for a dog, the only name that should ever be given to one really: Gos.

CAT → gosmamífer domèstic de la família dels cànids. [Domesticated mammal from the Canidae family.] ORIGIN Derived from the sound “gus” or “kus” used to call dogs or when addressing dogs.

EN → dog — a domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, and a barking, howling, or whining voice. ORIGIN Old English docga, of unknown origin.

ES  perroMamífero doméstico de la familia de los Cánidos, de tamaño, forma y pelaje muy diversos, según las razas. [Domesticated mammal of the Canidae family, of varying sizes, shapes and fur, according to breed.] ORIGIN Onomatopoeia from the sound made to call a dog, “perr perr.”

FR → chienMammifère (canidé) carnivore aux multiples races, caractérisé par sa facilité à être domestiqué, par une course rapide, un excellent odorat et par son cri spécifique, l’aboiement. [Canine mammal of various breeds, chracterized by how easily it is domesticated, by how quickly it runs, its excellent sense of smell and its unique call, the bark.] ORIGIN Latin canis [dog].

Catalan note: In many parts of Catalunya, people say ca instead of gos. This is derived from the Latin canis and is widely understood but is technically incorrect.

Spanish note: My BFF had a cat when we were little and I used to beckon her in the only way I knew how, by calling out Psst-psst, michiña which was how we did it on the farm. She taught me that in English, one says, “Here, kitty-kitty.” I don’t see how that makes more sense since cats sure as hell don’t recognize adverbs more than exclamations.

English note: Since I started running this feature, “unknown origin” has become one of my favorite phrases. Mysteries in mysteries! Get Edward E. Nigma on the case!

Today’s winner is Catalan, since it’s among the best words ever.


Word Mystery: woman / mujer / femme / dona

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

A big part of my life in Spain was about filling out forms. When I arrived in 2005, I had to deal with residency issues, nationality issues and ID-issuing issues. It was always frustrating and occasionally traumatic but it did get to the point that I could enter all relevant information into the casillas [: little houses, i.e. empty fields] while half-asleep.

This was not the case the first time. The first time I tried to fill out a form, I had to ask the woman at the counter what my gender was because I wasn’t sure. The options were H or M and I could think of lots of possible words those letters represented.

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My initial thought was hombre [man] and mujer [woman] but there was also hembra [female animal] and macho [male animal]. It turned out to be the former, but it felt wrong to mark myself as M when I’d been F my whole life (and therefore, distinctly not M). Languages shouldn’t be so confusing.

EN → woman — an adult human female. ORIGIN Old English wīfmon [wife], related to Dutch wijf and German Weib.

ES → mujerPersona del sexo femenino. [Person of female gender.] ORIGIN Latin mulĭer, –ēris [mistress, wife, woman].

FR → femmeÊtre humain du sexe féminin. [Human being of female gender.] ORIGIN Latin femina [female, woman].

CAT → donaPersona del sexe femení. [Person of the female gender.] ORIGIN Latin dŏmna, contraction of dŏmĭna [lady, wife, lover], feminine of dŏmĭnus [owner, lord, master].

English note: as a person who hopes never to be a wife, this bums me out.

Spanish note: “mistress” is the first definition! All I can say is, “!!!!!!!!!!!”

French note: Femme is a word that many Americans, myself included, regularly pronounce wrong. We say /fem/ in phrases like femme fatale, but in French it’s more /fam/. This is similar to a Catalan annoyance I have. Again, languages shouldn’t be so confusing.

Catalan note: following the previous note, the plural is dones, but /ˈdɔnəs/.

Today’s winner is Catalan since it isn’t overtly sexist and I like it best and I run things around here.


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: mussol / owl / búho / hibou

Archimedes the owl @SeantheArtist

Archimedes the owl @SeantheArtist

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?!).

Yesterday’s post about T. J. Eckleburg and his awesome eyes reminded me of a Word Mystery that I hadn’t even put on the list yet! And it’s one of my favorites!

CAT → mussolOcell d’aspecte rodanxó, de color terrós i blanc, sedentari i que s’alimenta de petits vertebrats i insectes. [Round-looking earth- and white-colored bird which feeds on small vertebrates and insects.] ORIGIN 13th cent. possibly Latin molle (smooth) from the lack of horns.

EN owl — Nocturnal bird of prey with large forward-facing eyes surrounded by facial disks, a hooked beak, and typically a loud call. ORIGIN Old English ūle, of Germanic origin Eule, from a base imitative of the bird’s call.

ES búho —  Ave rapaz nocturna, de color mezclado de rojo y negro, con el pico corvo, los ojos grandes y colocados en la parte anterior de la cabeza, sobre la cual tiene unas plumas alzadas que figuran orejas. [Nocturnal bird of prey, of red and black mixed colors with curved beak, and large eyes located in the anterior part of the head upon which there are vertical feathers which look like ears.] ORIGIN Common Latin bubo [horned or eagle owl].

FR hibouRapace nocturne existant sous diverses espèces, généralement caractérisé par des aigrettes sur le front, un bec crochu, de gros yeux ronds tournés vers l’avant, réputé pour son cri et pour nicher dans un trou ou un nid abandonné. [Noctural predator generally chracterized by sticking-out feathers on its head, a curved beak, large round forward-facing eyes, known for its cry and tendency to nest in holes or abandoned nests.] ORIGIN possibly onomatopoetic from the sound the animal makes houhou.

Catalan wins as mussol is one of my favorite words. It’s super fun to say. Moosoul! Moosoul!

Related things

Mussol is the name of a local chain restaurant in the Barcelona area. It’s a take on a typical Catalan country house (masia) and the food you’d find therein. It’s highly affordable and all the locations have open fire pits where much of the food is prepped in the traditional style. The menu changes with the seasons and always features whatever the classic dish of the moment is (like calçots). There’s one just a few minutes away from the owl on Diagonal. (map)

Growing up in the 80s as I did, owls make me think of Tootsie Pops, even though I really don’t like Tootsie Pops. Or Tootsie Rolls. Or Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie for that matter. (The depiction of women is pretty offensive.)

When I was teaching English and “owl” came up, I’d always say that it’s an animal frequently featured wearing glasses and being really smart. Everyone knew what I meant which speaks to the pervasive power of Disney.

While not technically about owls, the Portlandia sketch “Put A Bird On It” must have been inspired by how many owls are on cutesy-hipster crafts these days (proof). If you’re in the US, you can watch it here. If you’re not in the US, you already know how to get around such restrictions.