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 Outlier: tree

Tree in Place Vendôme, December 2013

Tree in Place Vendôme, December 2013

It’s Christmas-in-July all week! Get festive!

O, Christmas Tree
O, Christmas Tree
…why are you a “tree”?

EN tree —a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground. ORIGIN Old English trēow, trēo: from a Germanic variant of an Indo-European root shared by Greek doru [wood, spear] drus [oak].

The Spanish árbol and French arbre both come from the Latin (of course) arbor. Despite generally being annoyed with Latin (it’s in everything!), I find the English evolution to be suspect. I no longer like the word “tree.”


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Word Outlier: helmet

helmet — a hard or padded protective hat, various types of which are worn by soldiers, police officers, firefighters, motorcyclists, athletes, and others.

ORIGIN diminutive form of an Indo-European root meaning “to cover or hide,” adopted by the German as Helm, by the Dutch as helm and Old French as helme.

RIP my bike helmet.

Helmet 1I bought this helmet at a “start of season” sale in the Hamptons in 2005. My sister and I were visiting my brother who was working there in advance of “the season” which is when all the swells and husband-hunters descend on the area from New York and its environs.

I loved it instantly because of the cool design which looked Mayan or Ancient Egyptian but was actually funky animals like octopuses, crocodiles and cats. (The design is fun because it’s a child’s helmet. Adult helmets are boring.)

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We were going to be walking around all day, so I did what I thought was the most reasonable thing: I put the helmet on my head so that I wouldn’t have to carry it. What happened was that all the shop keepers thought I was a person with special needs and everyone was incredibly nice to me and spoke to me as though I was a child. Another classic case of Americans erring on the side of caution so much that they fall off the cliff at their backs.

When I pulled the helmet out of storage recently, I noticed that the foam lining (which cushions your head from the hard shell) was crumbling and making a mess so I emailed the manufacturer to see how I could get replacements here in France. They told me they stopped making this model in 2001. Unwilling to part with one of my favorite things to look at, I dug around some and found the original packaging (always keep the instructions, the packaging and the inserts, people!) and there were spare foam parts there. Hooray!

I asked a guy I know who’s a bike expert to help me place them correctly and he asked how old the helmet was. Sensing this was going somewhere bad, I told him that I’d had it for “a while.” He asked if it felt heavy and solid and I said yes. This was the wrong answer. It turns out that after a few years, the plastic foam the helmet is made of starts to degrade and becomes unified into one piece and that you’re supposed to replace them every five years, especially if you’re riding in the city as accidents are more likely.

So, I have to say goodbye to my old friend and go shopping for a new helm for my noggin. I’ve found a promising place near République but their business hours are 10h – 18h45 (vive la France!) which means I have to wait until next Saturday to go and see what cool kids’ business they’ve got going on.

Another purging tip

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer” isn’t just some snappy thing to say to someone who stares too long. It’s also a way to “keep” something without actually keeping it. I’ll be able to remember my helmet for years to come by clicking through the pics I took and think back on the good times we shared without having to have potentially toxic fumes in my nostrils and crumbled bits of plastic all over my hands.


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Word Outlier: bigote

mustache-you-a-question-red-white-and-blue-mdYou are now entering a place… where one strange word… lives alone… separated from its sibling signifiers. This is The Outlier Zone.

My nephew and I were recently sick simultaneously which made for fairly gross Skype sessions. We were both really congested and had noses and upper lips which were rubbed red from all the blowing and wiping. I tried to make light of the situation by saying that we had matching mustaches and were Jamaican and he giggled, I think because he heard the inflection signifying “funny” and not because he got either joke.

In the dead space between when I am used to having my comedy stylings appreciated and the next terribly witty thing I say, I realized that I had a Word Outlier right under my nose.

bigote — Pelo que nace sobre el labio superior. [Hair which sprouts from the upper lip.] ORIGIN Possibly from Arabic bei Got (translated in Spanish as “por Dios” but I can’t find if this is in the sense of “for God” or “oh God”).

Holy hell

Normally I don’t like it when organized religion crops up in places I don’t want it (that would be everywhere), but this word is AMAZING, regardless of what God’s doing there.

Anecdote explained

On a family vacation to Jamaica when I was just a wee lass, I made a funny that became part of my family’s vocabulary. I was walking along the beach with my father and I noticed that we were both wearing blue swim trunks. (His were actual mens trunks, mine were the bottoms from a bikini.) “Somos jamaicas!” I exclaimed, conflating “Jamaican” the nationality with “gemelo” [twin]. I’ve suffered from acute language-fusion my whole life.

Learn something from my mistake

Jamaican people are actually called jamaiquin@ or jamaican@ in Spanish. Remember that the @ in Spanish is used to gender-neutralize words.


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Word Outlier: lata

You are now entering a place… where one strange word… lives alone… separated from its sibling signifiers. This is The Outlier Zone.

Daylight saving time was yesterday meaning that 1) I am now only 5 hours ahead of EST and 2) anything that could be considered “nice” weather will no longer appear on the forecast. No matter, really, as I love bundling up and have already been rocking some Thinsulate™ and hats and gloves for the better part of two weeks.

It does bring to mind happier, sunnier times, though. Times when I’d hanker for a nice cool beer to quench my thirst. Times when my beer would be so cool, it’d wear sunglasses.

cannette Hoeg

Both the English can (a cylindrical metal container) and the French cannette (Contenant métallique cylindrique pour les boissons. [Cylindrical metal container for drinks]) come from the Genoan dialect’s cannetta [reed] but the Spanish differ, as they seem to make a habit of doing.

In Spain, you get a lata (Envase hecho de hojalata. [Container made of tin.]) but the word origin is, according the REA, “disputed” so I can’t tell you where it comes from.

Huh. Now I’m miffed. I don’t like having unanswered questions. I guess I owe you 25¢ for your time. Put it on my tab.


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Word Outlier: cerveza

You are now entering a place… where one strange word… lives alone… separated from its sibling signifiers.

This is The Outlier Zone.

(Inspired by a comment made by Madame Weebles on last week‘s Word Mystery, I’ve decided to do the Bizarro version of that recurring feature and look at why sometimes one language has a different root word when the others I know share the same one.)

Very similar to my high school experience.

Very similar to my high school experience. @Anders Nilsen for NYT

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I really like beer. My infatuation started when I realized that, consuming as much liquid as I do, I needed something with a lower alcohol content than, say, vodka, which I also love but can’t realistically drink unless I want to be hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. (Which I don’t.) I’m also a fan of the communal aspects of beer (it was the only reason anyone socialized in high school) and when I got to college, I discovered something that those wily New Englanders had been keeping to themselves: craft beer and bars with hundreds of beers on tap. It was glorious.

After college, I had disposable income to spend on really good beer, and I went nuts for Weissbier, Hefeweizen and Belgian blondes. When I told people I was moving to Europe, I joked that I was going to find a Belgian beer prince to marry and get drunk with for the rest of my life. (The joke was on me, of course, as Belgian beer is typically made by monks, a subset of the population little-known for their procreation.)

The word “beer” has basically been the same for ages, all over the Western world. In Old English, they had bēor. Latin biber was ‘a drink’; the Dutch guzzled bier and the Germans, with their crazy capitalization fetish, have Bier.

But the Spanish have to be difficult. Instead of accepting a perfectly good word, they stick it to everyone by having cerveza.

ES → cervezaBebida alcohólica hecha con granos germinados de cebada u otros cereales fermentados en agua, y aromatizada con lúpulo, boj, etc. [Alcoholic beverage made ​​with germinated grains of barley or other grains fermented in water and flavored with hops, boxwood, etc.] ORIGIN Celtic cerevisĭa.

'Tis true!

‘Tis true!

There is a very long history of Celtic presence in Spain (as far back as 900 BC according to some), especially the part closest to former Celtic lands. It’s odd that in a country still trying to learn to like beer, they should exclude themselves further from the fun by defying convention. They’re the worst.

Final thoughts

A few months ago, the NYT published a story proving what I already knew in high school.

In Spain, a Corona beer is called una Coronita. “Corona” was already registered to a wine company when the Mexican brewer came to set up shop. (It tastes like watered-down carbonated urine in both countries.)

Jacques Brel, that paean to la chanson française, has an ode to beer unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. When I first saw Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, I thought, “That Gaston song is totally a Jacques Brel rip off,” and I stand by my opinion.