Hints and Hindsights: Traveling words

Of course, it’s not only people and their customs that cross borders. Some of the most stalwart and adventurous travelers are words! At times they sneak in slyly and subtly, at times burst through via blockbusting explosion. They can be forced on natives by invaders, spring from the linguistic luggage of tourists, or return with former expats and exchange students. Mutating by seemingly imperceptible increments, they have often traversed centuries and continents on the lips of migrants. And occasionally, they are the results of misinterpretation, misperception and miscomprehension. Below, in no particular order, is an extremely incomplete list of examples of traveling words.

  • Journey: Sounds like journée, doesn’t it? That’s because that’s where it comes from. The feminine journée, matinée and soirée signify “a part of” the masculine jour, matin and soir. A soirée, for instance, is the part of the soir during which one might attend a soirée (“a party,” so named because no matter how long we’d like to live it up, we usually stay at such events for only parts of entire evenings). “Journey” made it into English in reference to trips that one could complete within a journée. (In the 19th-century U.S., county boundaries were determined according to how far Pony Express drivers could ride in one day.)HH-Vert
  • Speaking of making it into English: Did you ever think that it would really have been impossible for Cinderella to walk, let alone dance at a ball, in slippers made of glass? Well, you might be right and she possibly didn’t. There are five French words that sound like “vayr”: ver (worm), vers (toward), vert (green), verre (glass), vair (squirrel fur). The cultural-linguistic-literary jury is out on this one but some say that when the French story of Cendrillon crossed the English Channel, the British learned of her pantoufles (slippers) de vair and thought they were hearing pantoufles de verre! Then, assert the theorists, the fairy tale made its way back to France, where even the heroine’s creators bought into the new interpretation. A vous de decider!
  • Speaking of verbal round-trips: Centuries ago, hearing the British say “riding coat,” the French repeated it as redingote. The British then adopted the word “redingote” to mean “riding coat.” Head-spinning!
  • Or one-way trips: “Curfew” comes fromand sounds likethe French couvre-feu, meaning “cover the fire,” which is what one does, figuratively or literally, when curfew time comes around.
  • Or really lonnnnnng trips do you see a pattern here:

père/pied/poisson father/foot/fish

chien/corne/cheval/cent hound/horn/horse/hundred

dent/dix tooth/ten



What caused this? The long explanation involves intricate, erudite accounts of transcontinental migrations of speakers of Indo-European languages and sub-families of Indo-European languages and branches of those sub-families resulting in anthropological-linguistic-semantic-etymological-phonological-morphological mutations. The short explanation is folks’ mingling over vast time and space.

  • Or trips by unwanted visitors: Before William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (the last time France invaded England), English words for certain commonly eaten meats were the same as the words for the animals from which the meat came”pig, calf, sheep, cow,” etc. After this Norman invasion, these meats began to be referred to by the French words for the animals, which gradually became Anglicized and are now used throughout the English-speaking world: porc > pork, veau > veal, mouton > mutton, boeuf > beef. Interestingly, the words for meats less commonly eaten at the time remained unaffected by this transformation, with “rabbit, turkey, chicken,” etc. still designating both the animal and its meat.HH-pigWhich brings us to “bistro,” a word whose origin hardened etymologists love to heatedly dispute over plates of traditionally prepared veau in bistros. In one camp are those who say it may have stemmed from the Russian word bystro, meaning “quickly” and supposedly barked out in eateries by hungry and impatient Russian officers during their occupation of Paris (starting in 1814 and eventually leading to Napoleon’s exile to Elba). In the other camp are those who take great joy in mocking their colleagues’ gullibility for urban legends and penchant for the linguistic quick-fix.
  • I don’t know. I’m asking YOU: Why do the French drop the second (and subsequent) word(s) of English-language compound nouns, thereby transferring to the first word the entirety of the phrase’s meaning? Why does “smoking jacket” become le smoking? (And why isn‘t this called le tuxedo in the first place?) Why are “basketball shoes” les baskets? Why is “living room” amputated to le living, “football” hacked to le foot, “rollerblades” shrunk to les rollers¸ “cross-country running” diminished to le cross, “microphone” reduced to le micro, “Coca-Cola” condensed to le Coca, the “Herald Tribune” abridged to le Herald, “Mickey Mouse” and “Donald Duck” slashed to Mickey and Donald? Not even Mickey Souris and Donald Canard! WHY? What, Noam Chomsky, does this tell us about the French? Does this mean the French are stupefyingly intelligent, and need only the most minute hint of a word in order to instantaneously and with faultless precision anticipate, comprehend, internalize and react to the entire packet of phonemes to follow? Does this mean that if it ain’t the language of Voltaire it ain’t worth spending more than a couple letters on? Does this mean that the human brain can handle just so many facts and figures at once, and what we lose in the correct rendering of a phrase we gain in room for planning our next vacation? I don’t know. I’m asking YOU.
  • Les immortels: We can’t end without a shout-out to the Académie Française, whose 40 sages (called “the immortals”) have reigned over the correct usage of and permissible words in the French language since the institution’s founding in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu. (While these have, of course, not been the same 40 for 379 years, tenures are long: académiciens hold the post for life unless removed for misconductas was Philippe Pétain, who governed Vichy France during World War II.) Although the official dictionary the Académie Française publishes is not binding on the government or the people, if the body had its way, the French would be substitutingamong many otherscoussin gonflable (inflatable cushion) for the universally used “airbag,” restauration rapide (rapid food-service) for “fast food” and (You ready?) mot-dièse (musical-sharp-sign word) for “hashtag”!

Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.