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: blackout / apagón / panne d’électricité

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

Things I was forced to learn learned recently include:

1. French fuse boxes don’t look like any fuse box I’ve ever seen.



2. French fuses come in different wattages (or whatever), look like bullets and live in little Japanese-pod beds.

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3. Spent (or used or broken or whatever) French fuses literally blow their tops off, revealing a tiny red mark that indicates they’ve gone to illumination heaven (which I imagine is actually a really dark place where they can all rest for once).

French busted fuse.

4. Those things from IKEA that look like surge protectors are actually not protecting anything.

EN → blackout — a failure of electrical power supply. ORIGIN Darkness is black. It’s not hard to figure out, people.

ES → apagónInterrupción pasajera del suministro de energía eléctrica. [Temporary interruption of the power supply.] ORIGIN Noun of apagar [turn off], from Latin pacāre [calm, mitigate].

FR → panne d’électricité — Arrêt momentané et accidentel du fonctionnement d’électricité. [Momentary and accidental shutting down of electricity.] ORIGIN Variation on penne [pen] from Latin penna [wing].

General note: all three terms refer most commonly to large-scale power outages. What happened to me recently, I remembered after thinking long and hard, was that I “blew a fuse” but that wasn’t Word Mystery fodder so out it went!

So angry, Howard. Why don't you calm down?

You’re so angry, Howard. Why don’t you calm down?

Sad note: I actually lived through a big blackout in Barcelona in July 2007 that made international news. I filmed a video of the immediate aftermath (which I’d love to share with you but WordPress wants me to pay to upload video and I refuse) because Catalan people be crazy.

Imagine the oddest reaction to massive electrical failure that you could possibly think of having. Now let me tell you what the citizens of the whole affected area did en masse — hang out their windows, just like Howard Beale wants you to, and bang on pots with wooden spoons. Other people uploaded their videos to YT and you can check some out here and see that I am not lying.

English note: disappointed again.

Spanish note: A thing about me is that telling me to “calm down” makes me super angry. This is because it’s a common thing Spanish people do and they mean it in the most condescending way possible. Suggesting that someone else is in hysterics is a great way to make oneself look infinitely superior which is a national pastime. Spain loses just for that and may get put in the penalty box for being such a jerk.

French note: I understand how “wing” became “plume” but am a bit confused about its jump to meaning cut or rupture. Maybe ’cause a wing has an articulation in it? I don’t have science, so I can’t say if that’s even true.

Today’s winner is nobody since all of these stunk. Next week better improve or I’m going to get as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!


Word Mystery: street / calle / rue

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

A Paris street (technically an avenue, whatever). Nov. 2013

A Paris street (technically an avenue, whatever). Nov. 2013

At this point in my Word Mystery game, I’m starting to think that I should take a beginner’s language book and go through the vocabulary, looking for the most basic mysteries. Why? Because I had somehow not gotten around to “street,” an elementary word in modern life. At least yesterday’s look at how dumb I am streets here in Paris finally got me on the right track.

Please check your side- and rear-view mirrors before proceeding.

EN → street — a public road in a city or town, typically with houses and buildings on one or both sides. ORIGIN Old English strǣt, from Latin strāta [paved way].

ES → calleEn una población, vía entre edificios o solares. [In a populated area, the way between buildings and vacant lots.] ORIGIN Latin callis [trail, path].

FR → ruevoie de circulation routière aménagée à l’intérieur d’une agglomération, habituellement bordée de maisons, d’immeubles, de propriétés closes. [Throughways arranged inside a populated area, usually bordered by houses, buildings or closed lots.] ORIGIN Latin ruga [line, wrinkle].

This is another word / concept that I’d never thought to define before, but reading through these it totally makes sense that a street is something you’ll find only in a semi-planned, urban-type setting. Out in the country, there are roads, routes and highways but no streets.

It’s also one of the few Word Mysteries where all the languages have Latin roots, even if they’re totally different ones. I would venture to guess that the English root is the most recent and is due to the Romans introducing the concept of paving to the Anglo-Saxon world. (The Romans loved building roads and any other kind of urban improvement projects.) The Spanish and French would have evolved more naturally from the natural paths that people and animals made as they shuffle around this mortal coil.

Today’s winner is Latin, especially since I can’t decide which evolution of the idea I like best.


Word Mystery: cheese / queso / fromage

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

It seems pretty unfair to me that in any decent city in the US you can get good cheese sticks, but that in a country that’s known for its cheese, you can’t.

American cheesesticks

These are some I got at 10 in the damn morning at a diner in New York and they were perfect. They were fried just right and had the right kind of seasoning on the breading and they were served with warm marinara sauce.

Any time I’ve seen cheese sticks on menus here, they’re served with sweet-and-sour sauce. Sweet-and-sour sauce! Like the kind in Chinese restaurants! It’s too upsetting to get into further so instead of letting my mood turn sour, I’ll get on with today’s Mystery.

EN → cheese — a food made from the pressed curds of milk. ORIGIN Old English cēse, cȳse; related to Dutch kaas and German Käse; from Latin casĕus [cheese].

ES → quesoProducto obtenido por maduración de la cuajada de la leche con características propias para cada uno de los tipos según su origen o método de fabricación. [Product obtained through the aging of milk curd, with unique characteristics according to its origin or preparation.] ORIGIN Latin casĕus.

FR → fromageProduit alimentaire obtenu par coagulation du lait, égouttage du caillé ainsi obtenu et, éventuellement, affinage. [Food product obtained by curdling milk, draining the curb thus obtained and, eventually, refining it.] ORIGIN Old French formage from Low Latin formaticus casĕus [molded cheese].

Catalan note: I should say here that my favorite way to talk about curdled milk is the Catalan as it’s the most fun to say formatge [fohr-MAH-tcha].

French note: Odd that they took the adjective and adopted it. It’s like how the Spanish call that one band “Los Rolling,” not knowing in their infinite cluelessness that they sound like idiots.

If life were fair, Latin would be the winner today since it was the unlikely source for all three words today. But if life were fair, I’d be able to get good cheese sticks anywhere at any time, so I’m going to declare that no one wins today. Take that, Latin!


queso cheese sauce


Word Mystery: left / izquierda / gauche

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

Everything about this pic from Wikipedia is funny to me, esp. her leopard-print shirt.

Everything about this pic from Wikipedia is funny to me, esp. her leopard-print shirt.

Spell It Out by David Crystal is so good, you guys.   If I could, I’d pull almost all the text and reproduce it for you. Every page has at least five interesting things on it that I didn’t know and some pages are non-stop knowledge (like the section detailing where each letter of the English alphabet came from).

But copying the book and pasting it onto this blog would be theft of a kind I don’t promote. Instead, I’ll tell you how I got to today’s Word Mystery while reading Crystal’s opus on orthography.

I was learning that in Old English, every letter was pronounced and that the OE word laf meant “remainder” and I thought, “So *that’s* where that meaning of left comes from ’cause it never did make any sense to me” and then *that’s* when I realized that “left” is a total Word Mystery and that I needed to get it sorted right away.

EN → left — on, toward, or relating to the side of a human body or of a thing that is to the west when the person or thing is facing north. ORIGIN Old English lyft [weak] (the left-hand side being regarded as the weaker side of the body).

ES → izquierdaDicho de una parte del cuerpo humano: Que está situada en el lado del corazón. [Said of a part of the human body which is on the side of the heart.] ORIGIN Basque ezkerra.

FR → gaucheSe dit de toute partie du corps qui, pour un individu, est située du côté de son cœur. [Is said of all parts of the body which, per the individual, is situated on the side of the heart.] ORIGIN Unclear, though it was changed from senestre circa the 15th century. 


First off: the English definition is amazing for being both a totally logical way of describing “left” and also totally Anglo-centric as the English-speaking peoples love cardinal directions so much.

Secondly: Basque, known as Euskara to those who speak it and to the rest of the Iberian peninsula, is the most fascinating language I’ve ever encountered since it has no known connection to any other language. That means that the roots to its words are never Latin. Or Germanic. Or even Hebrew. They up and grew their own way of talking, making them total badasses.

Thirdly: Both Spanish and French describe “left” relative to the placement of the human heart which I guess means that they didn’t have dextrocardia in either country but still knew enough about human anatomy to know where the heart was. 

Fourthly: the French origin is unknown?! What kind of evil is this?

Fifth: I know what kind of evil — the Italian kind! The word for “left” in Italian is sinistra which comes from Latin sinister [left] but from which the regular kind of “sinister” also came because there’s something evil about the left-hand side. (I’m too tired to dig into this more, but I guess it’s something to do with God or Jesus or an old pope or something Catholic for sure.)

Today’s Winner: HOWCANICHOOSE? I can not.


Word Mystery: success / éxito / réussite

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

Every image to illustrate "success" is really cheesy.

Every image to illustrate “success” is really cheesy.

Oh, man. What a year. Except for that time that a North European pickpocket caused me to not have an Internet connection for a million years, I’ve been posting five days a week. This feat impresses me, especially since I didn’t really set out to do it any real sense, like, it wasn’t on my To Do List for 2013. It just kind of happened and I’m pretty psyched about having made it this far. I guess I have an endless supply of dumb stuff to share. Like today’s knowledge crumbs!

success — the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. ORIGIN from Latin successus, from the verb succedere [come close after].

éxitoResultado feliz de un negocio, actuación, etc. [Favorable result in a business dealing, performance, etc.] ORIGIN Latin exĭtus [exit].

réussiteBon succès. [Good success.] ORIGIN Borrowed from Italian riuscita [success] from uscita [exit], this from Latin exire [to leave/exit] from ex- + eo [go outside of].

Huh. I’ve got to admit that this is the most puzzling Word Mystery yet. I don’t really understand any of the evolutions, and that they all come from Latin makes it somehow more frustrating. What does leaving have to do with accomplishment? George Costanza is the only connection I can make between the two ideas, and he came a few years after the Latin language developed so I’m stymied.

Today’s Winner: Latin, obviously, since it showed me that just when I thought I was so clever and productive, I’m the same idiot I was when I started writing this damn blog.