Friday, September 30, 2011

Does "Mademoiselle" mean bird-brained?

American feminism, back in the day, dabbled (jokingly or not) in etymythology: Using herstory, for instance, which implies that the "his" of history refers to maleness, or treating female as a subset of male, when in fact the words aren't etymologically related.

Are French feminists, in the post-DSQ uprising, taking the same etymological liberties? The story I heard on NPR yesterday roused my suspicions (as any too-good-to-check etymology should do). There’s a campaign to create a Gallic equivalent of Ms., freeing French women from the stark choice between Madame (married) and Mademoiselle (not). And spokeswoman Marie-Noelle Bas, arguing the case, told the reporter why mademoiselle was offensive: “oiselle in French is the feminine of oiseau [bird]. And in ancient French, that means virgin, that means stupid, that means somebody who needs to be married."

Well, my Larousse tells me that oiselle does indeed mean “jeune fille naive, niaise” -- a naive or silly girl. (I'll take Bas's word for the "needing to be married" connotation, which is plausible enough.) But does the word have anything to do with mademoiselle?

I don’t think so. Oiselle, says Larousse, comes from the Latin aucellus, the diminutive form of avis (bird). Demoiselle (the source of English damsel) is derived from the Latin dominicella, diminutive of domina, lady (of the house), mistress, female boss. The shared syllables in oiselle and mademoiselle seem to show only that both are descended from diminutive forms, not that they're closer relatives than, say, marionette and lunette, or mozzarella and patella.

But if I’m missing something, dear Francophone readers and scholars, do let me know.


Jonathon said...

I took only a couple of years of French, so I'm no expert, but that matches my understanding of the word. Mademoiselle is essentially just a diminutive of madame.

Kay L. Davies said...

I agree with Jonathon.
"Madame" is "ma dame" or "my lady" or "my woman".
"Mademoiselle" is "ma demoiselle" or "my young lady" or "my young woman".
It's the "my" they should be worried about, if anything, instead of rabbiting on about birds.
Why don't they just use "Ms" as English speakers have been doing for a number of years now, without imagining ourselves to be a manuscript.

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel

The Ridger, FCD said...

Well, the "mon" in "monsieur" is equivalent to the "ma" in the others, so no worries there.

What I wonder is what these people think the "de" means, if "Mademoiselle" means "My de little bird"?

I more seriously wonder if "oiselle" and "bird" as a slang term for a young woman are related in any way?

Marc Leavitt said...

Pace Mme. Bas, this is exactly parallel to the idiocy of complaining about "his"tory. The French are perfectly capable of coming up with a Gallic version of Ms.

Cluisanna said...

The problem is not what roots this word has - the problem is the same as with "Miss" and "Mrs", that there are only two categories of women: daughters (of fathers) and wifes (of husbands). Men are always referred to as Mr., just like they keep their name when getting married, because in the mindset that shaped these terms, women belong to men, and the most important event in the life of a woman is her marriage.
I think we can all agree that those are pretty outdated ideas.

Anonymous said...

When I spent a year in Francophone Switzerland as a student nearly 40 years ago, I was sometimes addressed in shops etc. as "Madame". So even in those days French speakers were starting to address all women in the same way.

Kate (Derby, UK)