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: watch / reloj / montre

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

RIP my watch. (2014 is apparently the year many of my things retire.)

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I got this watch on Avinguda Josep Tarradelles in Barcelona many years ago for 40€. It was a temporary replacement for my real watch whose bevel case had cracked but the damn replacement wouldn’t stop working! For many years, it was my trusty companion, alerting me to when my students’ hour-long classes were drawing to a close from its discreet spot next to my water bottle.

Shortly after I arrived in France, it started losing time which I thought was apt since I was taking a break from working to just relax a bit and see how I felt about things. It was a while before I figured out where in Lyon one buys a watch battery (the Part Dieu shopping mall!) and after I replaced it, the damn thing still kept running for a few more years.

Last year, it started losing time again, but a new lease on life battery didn’t make it work any better, so it has to go to watch heaven. There’s some kind of easy Proust joke about time, lost, remembered and otherwise here, but I won’t disrespect an honorable timepiece by making fun of it.

EN → watch — a small timepiece worn typically on a strap on one’s wrist. ORIGIN Old English wæcce [watchfulness]. The sense ‘small timepiece’ probably developed by way of a sense “alarm device attached to a clock.”

ES → relojMáquina dotada de movimiento uniforme, que sirve para medir el tiempo o dividir el día en horas, minutos y segundos. [Machine equipped with uniform movement which serves to measure time or divide the day into hours, minutes and seconds.] ORIGIN Scandal! The RAE won’t give any kind of origin info, but another site I frequently use tells a good and logical story. Reloj is probably derived from the Greek oorologion [list of hours] but the evolution to end in -j is “controversial.” (Only one other word in Spanish ends in -j — which my mother is probably saying under her breath right now — carcaj [quiver for arrows].

FR → montrePetit appareil portatif, fonctionnant dans toutes les positions, servant à donner l’heure et d’autres indications. [Small portable apparatus, which works in all positions, which serves to tell the time and give other indications.] ORIGIN From the verb montrer [to show / demonstrate].

English note: a thing I like about English is that it differentiates between a clock and watch. Unless you’re Flavor Flav, they aren’t the same thing.

Spanish note: I’m not even gonna pretend — a scandal in the etymology community guarantees a win, so Spain runs away with it today.

French note: the “it works in all directions / senses” is a weird thing to me. It’s not like watches are space pens. Why wouldn’t you be able to read one upside down? Why was this particular feature called out in the definition? Totally weird.


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Word Mystery: ice cream cone / cucurucho / cornet

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

In the summer time, when the weather is warm…I am frequently too damn hot to eat dinner. Sometimes, half a kilo of strawberries is a meal, other times, I’ll grab a sorbet on the way home to cool myself off from the inside out.

Earlier this week, I had a scoop of citron for dinner, but it didn’t compare to the delicious cassis I used to get in Lyon after a hard ride on a sunny day.

Glorious.

Glorious.

Nothing beats cooling my brain off after sorting out a Word Mystery though (I tell myself in the hopes that it’ll be true).

EN → ice cream cone — an edible wafer container shaped like a cone in which ice cream is served. ORIGIN late Middle English (denoting an apex or vertex): from French cône, from Greek kōnos .

ES → cucuruchoPapel, cartón, barquillo, etc., arrollado en forma cónica, empleado para contener dulces, confites, helados, cosas menudas. [Paper, cardboard, wafer, etc. rolled in conical form, used to contain candies, pastries, ice cream or small things.] ORIGIN From an Italian dialect’s cucuruccio.

FR → cornetGaufrette conique que l’on garnit de glace. [Conical waffle which is filled with ice cream.] ORIGIN Diminutive of corne, this from Low Latin corna [cone, horn].

English note: the origin reminds me of a time during my ESL teaching days in Barcelona. Another teacher poked her head out of her classroom and asked if anyone knew another word for “top” to help her class complete an exercise. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said, “Tip, apex, peak, acme, zenith, summit, climax, pinnacle. Do any of those work?” Everyone around me was shocked, but they didn’t even realize the super-scary thing I’d done. As an avid crossword-puzzler, I’d listed the synonyms in ascending order of letters. My mind is a terrifying place, full of words and oddness.

Spanish note: Italian, eh? I guess ice cream came by boat to Spain. Figures. There aren’t any good native desserts there. (I think flan is yuck to the max.)

French note: this was a little bit of a cheat today since I was fairly certain going in that “cone” would have a French connection, but I make no apologies.

C’mon. Do you even have to ask who today’s winner is? Have you *tried* saying cucurucho out loud? If you do, I guarantee that it’ll be one of the best things that comes out of your mouth all day.


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Word Mystery: strike / huelga / grève

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

Not the day in question.

Not the day in question.

Summertime in Europe means things will be closed and people will go on strike.

Last year, there was the strike by the workers at the Louvre to raise awareness of how much petty crime was happening there. (That’s the nice spin on a story that can also be read as the employees just being fed up with stupid tourists getting pick-pocketed and then coming to them to complain even though their job is to protect the art.)

Last week, the workers at the Eiffel Tower went on strike for several hours because they basically want more stuff across the board. Better pay, better hours, better job security, etc. Apparently nothing was good enough since they asked for pretty much everything except getting paid not to work at all.

Man, these French people don’t know how to appreciate a decent job with a decent wage. Here I am, writing five days a week to provide you entertainment and no one’s paying me anything. Maybe I should go on strike! Vive la France!

EN → strike — a refusal to work organized by a body of employees as a form of protest, typically in an attempt to gain a concession or concessions from their employer. ORIGIN Old English strican [make smooth, stroke, rub]. Modern meaning probably from 1700s when sailors would “strike the sails,” lowering all sails and making them smooth against the mast, as a signal that they would not go to sea.

ES → huelga — 2. Interrupción colectiva de la actividad laboral por parte de los trabajadores con el fin de reivindicar ciertas condiciones o manifestar una protesta. [Collective interruption of work by the part of the workers with the goal of demanding certain conditions or to organize a protest.] ORIGIN From verb holgar [to be idle], from Late Latin follicāre [blow, breathe].

FR → grève — Cessation collective et concertée du travail en vue d’appuyer des revendications professionnelles dont l’employeur a connaissance. [Collective work stoppage aimed at supporting worker claims about which the employer has been made aware.] ORIGIN From Place de la Grève, name of a square in Paris where unemployed factory workers would go to make themselves available for work.

English note: I was initially surprised to learn that “strike” came from a word that means “smooth” but when combined with the phrase, “strike the sails” which I had heard, it makes a lot more sense. Also surprising: there are 11 definitions for “strike.”

Spanish note: I love the word holgar and am sad I forgot it.

French note: The former Place de la Grève is now the home to the Hôtel de Ville, aka City Hall. I found two different stories about other stuff that used to go down in the square, one in English and another in French. Take both with a grain of salt.

Following on the French note: there’s a word in English for the kind of place the Place de la Grève used to be; does anyone know it? From what I’ve gathered, if you go to the parking lot of a Home Depot or similar place in the morning, there will be a bunch of guys waiting around, hoping to get some day labor gig. I can’t for the life of me remember what that’s called.

I’m not gonna lie. Spain was going to run away with the win today regardless since I’ve had the most experience with Spanish strikes and love the sound of huelga [well-gah].


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Word Mystery: box / caja / boîte

 

I own one chair. That's all the furniture I've got.

I own one chair and a helluva lot of boxes.

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

It’s moving time again, so my life has become about boxes and packing and rediscovering things long forgotten. (Someday I will share with you how many brand new spatulas I own. You will be as shocked as I was unless you also have more than a dozen of the same unused kitchen item.)

EN → box — a container with a flat base and sides, typically square or rectangular and having a lid. ORIGIN Old English, via Latin from Greek puxis [small box].

ES → cajaRecipiente que, cubierto con una tapa suelta o unida a la parte principal, sirve para guardar o transportar en él algo. [Container which, open or with a lid (separate or part of its construction) is used to keep or transport something.] ORIGIN Latin capsa.

FR → boîtecontenant rigide en bois, carton, métal ou matière plastique, avec ou sans couvercle, dans lequel on met des objets ou des produits divers. [Stiff container made of wood, cardboard, metal or plastic, with or without a cover, in which one puts things or various products.] ORIGIN Latin buxeti [grove of boxwood trees] from Greek puksis [small box].

What? I have no idea what’s happening here. It’s a truly baffling day when the Spanish word is the most logical of the bunch.

Additional confusion: the English and French both come from the same word but are spelled differently. This is apparently acceptable, I’d guess partly because the Greek alphabet doesn’t have a 1: 1 with the Roman one, but also maybe because there weren’t standard spellings of things in Ancient Greece. (At least, that’s the impression I get from books like David Crystal‘s which feature cabals of academics / priests deciding how things will be written.)

Botanical note: I am very bad with plants and don’t know the names of most green growy things, so I never considered that boxwood trees are trees with good, hard wood that people used to make boxes out of. Sometimes, if you don’t look too hard, English is totally easy. Other times, not so much.


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Word Mystery: cash / efectivo / espèces

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

I was right receiptThe cashier at my new local grocery store doesn’t like me. I suppose this is my fault, but I’ll explain what happened and you can judge for yourself.

She rang me up on one of my first visits, a total of 19,67€. Using the one math trick that I know, I gave her a 20€ bill and 17 cents.

“What’s this?” she asked, indicating the 10-cent piece.

“That gives me 50 cents back,” I told her.

“What? No it doesn’t! I don’t want this!” and she pushed the coin into my shopping bag, making it impossible to reach since it fell underneath all my purchases.

“Yes,” I insisted because this is the one math thing I can do right. “I give you 17 and you return 50.”

I may have pushed this point a little too hard. I should have taken her disproportionately angry initial response as an indication that she was in a bad mood.

“Don’t you tell me how to run my register!” she yelled at me. Yelled. In the middle of the store on an otherwise normal day. I backed down immediately, but the receipt proves that I was totally right, something she realized as soon as she counted out my change.

Today we went through the same thing; I was counting out the 33 cents that would give me 50 back but she changed up the operation and grabbed a one-Euro coin from my palm and, in a flash, gave me 17 cents in 1- and 2-cent pieces. I’m fairly sure that she did it just to piss me off, which worked, but she also made the rest of her shift impossible.

As a former cashier and person who had to cash out registers at the end of the night, I know that you want MORE denominations of coins so that you can easily make change. If you give all of your 1-cent pieces to someone out of spite, then you’ve screwed yourself by not being able to spread out their dispersal over your shift. Her behavior makes no sense to me and only results in both of us being penalized for her bad mood and inability to grasp mathematical concepts that even a complete idiot (me) can master. Makes no cents at all.

But dealing with surly cashiers is one of the disadvantages of paying in cash, today’s Word Mystery. I’ll ring you up below.

EN → cash — money in coins or notes, as distinct from checks, money orders, or credit. ORIGIN Old French casse [box] from Latin capsa [box].

ES → efectivo4. adj. Dicho del dinero: En monedas o billets. [4. Money term, in coins or bills.] ORIGIN Latin effectīvus [of practical implementation].

FR → espèces4. monnaie ayant cours légal. [Legal tender.] ORIGIN Latin “species” but its evolution is unclear. Possibly from the sense of “commodity” but even that seems a stretch.

English note: I’m disappointed that I never made the connection between “cash” and “caixa” before. The latter is a term seen in lots of places all over Spain as it’s commonly used in bank names, like Caixa Galicia.

Spanish note: Effectivus for the rest of us, I guess?

French note: In my mind, espèces was related to “spices” which made sense as they were used as currency. That it’s related to “species” makes no sense to me.

Today’s Winner is Spanish since it both confounded me the first time someone said it to me (“You want me to effectively do what, exactly?”) and, because of the three options, it’s the least annoying.