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: prune / podar / élaguer

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

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What’s the opposite of a green thumb? Typhoid Mary finger? Pathogen pinkie? Infectious digit? Whatever it is, I’ve got it. If I just look at a plant too long it’ll die even though I like plants (as long as they aren’t flowers) and I’m pro-oxygen generation.

I am totally honest with people when I take on their sublets: if they leave living things in my care, they will not survive despite my best intentions. If they want to see their precious greenery in a few months, they need to make arrangements that don’t involve me.

This is why the owner of my current domicile recently came over to tend to her garden. She had to prune some things and throw more dirt on some other things and generally aerate the dirt around a third grouping of things. All of her poking and prodding reminded me of a Word Mystery which I had not yet dug into, so let’s get our hands dirty.

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EN prune — trim (a tree, shrub, or bush) by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, esp. to increase fruitfulness and growth. ORIGIN Old French proignier [abbreviate?] possibly based on Latin rotundus [round].

ES podarCortar o quitar las ramas superfluas de los árboles, vides y otras plantas para que fructifiquen con más vigor. [Cut or remove superfluous branches from trees, vines and other plants so that they bear fruit with more vigor.] ORIGIN Latin putāre [clear up, settle, reckon, estimate, value, think, believe, suppose, hold, mean].

FR élaguerréalizer l’opération qui consiste à couper certaines branches d’un arbre. [Perform the task of cutting certain branches from a tree.] ORIGIN Norwegian laga [put in order].

Well, I’m stumped. I have no idea what to make of any of these words today.

English note: Old French references aren’t easy to come by online, so I can’t verify what proignier means, nor can I see any connection between “cutting” and “round.”

Spanish note: Putāre had a whole slew of definitions, many of them different from each other, none of which seem connected to promoting growth, horticulture, or culling. It’s also not related to puta (I checked).

French note: At least the origin word is still identifiable in the modern French word, but I think it’s kind of a stretch to say that “pruning” is “putting in order.” Maybe the win goes to France by default since the other two are so out there?

Another thing

Writing out “horticulture” made me think of Dorothy Parker. When asked to use the word in a sentence, she said, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” Snerk. She was the best.

You can read an appreciation of Parker here or just scan a list of some of her best quips here. Though in later life she disparaged the infamous group of which she was a part, her legacy is long.


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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.


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Word Mystery: turkey / pavo / dinde

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

This map is almost irrelevant.

This map is almost irrelevant.

Well, that was a missed opportunity. Last week’s Word Mystery should definitely have been “turkey” but I schedule these posts so far in advance that I frequently pass up perfectly good holiday tie-ins. Though, truth be told, if I had an oven, I could still be eating Thanksgiving leftovers a week later since it’s my favorite meal in the universe… so, yeah, I totally meant to post this today! Whether you believe me or not, waddle on down and let’s talk turkey.

EN → turkey — a large mainly domesticated game bird native to North America, having a bald head and (in the male) red wattles. ORIGIN applied to the guinea fowl (which was imported through Turkey), and then erroneously to the American bird.

ES → pavoAve del orden de las Galliformes, oriunda de América. [Bird of the Galliformes order, native of America.] ORIGIN Latin pavus [peacock].

FR → dindeGrand oiseau de basse-cour originaire de l’Amérique du Nord dont le cou et la tête sont rouges et dépourvus de plumes. [Large game bird native of North America whose neck and head are red and without feathers.] ORIGIN Spaniards brought the bird to Europe from Mexico and in France it was known as “chicken from India” [poule d’Inde] since Columbus and the Spanish still thought the Americas were India.

English & Spanish note: man, people used to be really bad at geography. Like, way worse than I am at math which is hard to comprehend.

Second Spanish note: the definition for pavo was the longest I’ve come across, so I edited it down considerably. I have *no idea* why this of all words required such a lengthy, zoological description.

Spanish note, tercero: In modern Spanish, a peacock is called un pavo real [a royal turkey] which I like to interpret as a veiled insult to monarchies solely because that amuses me.

French note: The male of the bird is called a dindon, but it’s the female who gets eaten so she gets to be Word Mystery-ed.

Today’s Winner: it’s obviously French because that origin story is awesome, hilarious and makes Spaniards look like idiots. It’s a Word Mystery hat trick!

Learn one more thing

You may not have noticed the pun in the introduction and since I both love puns and want people to make gooder English talking, here’s an explanation. “Talking turkey” means to talk about something honestly. In this sense, turkey is also not bullshit which is another thing to love about it.


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Word Mystery: hairdo / peinado / coiffure

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

How much control do we have over our own choices? Before this week, I would have said that moving to France was completely my idea, but it’s possible that’s not the case. It may be that the hair towel I’ve been using every day for at least five years has been brainwashing me through some sort of weird osmosis.

Qwäf : kwaff : coiff

“Qwäf” : kwaff : coiff

It took me a second to process the brand name, but once I did, I thought, “Get the Word Mystery out!”

EN → hairdo — the style in which a person’s hair is cut. ORIGIN Old English hǣr, related to Dutch haar and German Haar.

ES → peinadoCada una de las diversas formas de arreglarse el cabello. [All of the various ways in which to wear one’s hair.] ORIGIN Peinar [to brush/comb] from Latin pectināre [comb].

FR → coiffureCoupe ou arrangement des cheveux. [Cut or styling of hair.] ORIGIN Common Latin cofia [bonnet].

Old_woman_in_sunbonnet_by_Doris_UlmannTHE VERDICT: Well, English clearly loses today for making me think of goddamn hippies and their hippy musicals. Spanish is kind of lame due to its literalness so the win goes to French for making me think that I should figure out a way to make my hair look like a bonnet because that would be hilarious (hairlarious?).


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Word Mystery: nun / monja / religieuse

Every Wednesday, I explore how something came to have many word origins in different languages.

Yesterday we looked at a yummy French pastry called a religieuse which got its name from looking like a nun. Today, we’re going to look at where those crazy wimpled ladies got their names.

EN → nun — a member of a religious community of women, esp. a cloistered one, living under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. ORIGIN Ecclesiastical Latin nonna, feminine of nonnus [monk].

ES monja — Religiosa de alguna de las órdenes aprobadas por la Iglesia, que se liga por votos solemnes, y generalmente está sujeta a clausura. [Member of a religious order of the Catholic Church, bound by solemn vows and generally subject to closure.] ORIGIN Feminization of French moine [monk].

FR religieuse — Celle qui s’est engagé par des vœux à suivre une certaine règle autorisée par l’église. [One who is committed by vows to follow a certain rule authorized by the church.] ORIGIN Unclear, though most likely from the adjective describing anything religious.

I guess French wins for being a root source in a language not its own.

The Penguin gave them "a mission from God."

The Penguin gave them “a mission from God.”

Things I knew about nuns before writing this post included wisdom I’ve gleaned from “The Blues Brothers,” “Call the Midwife,” “Sister Act,” “Nuns on the Run” and reruns of “The Flying Nun” on the UHF channel I watched growing up. None (pun!) of these things are actually useful information, so it appears I’m none (!) the wiser. I should stop now before God smites me for being so amused.