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.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How many crabs could an esteemed chef steam ...

Boston chef Jasper White is headed to China to enjoy some freshwater hairy crabs, a delicacy he first encountered in 1986, according to this interview in today's Globe. "So what exactly makes the crabs special?" asks the reporter.
A. They’re delicious and highly steamed. And also, they’re rare. They’re found predominantly in the Nanjing Province. And they’re only in harvest four weeks, during fall.
 I don't think the reporter's transcription here qualifies as an eggcorn; it's just a garden-variety mishearing, one that's almost plausible in the context. Not that you'd want your shellfish "highly steamed," but then, the other possible reading -- "they're delicious and highly esteemed" -- isn't a very good answer to the question either. At least this version is good for a laugh.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Toilé and trouble

The etymology of "toilet" is a good story, so I was pleased (at first) to see it mentioned in this full-page Clorox ad. "The word 'toilet' comes from the French word 'toile' which originally referred to a woman's dressing table," the small print begins. But when I squinted, I saw
that what it really said was "from the French word 'toilé.'"
Uh-oh! that charming continental rogue, the accent aigu, has seduced another victim. Toilet does come from toile, in French a kind of fabric (and in English too, where it usually refers to toile de Jouy, with its monochrome print of landscapes or shepherds). But it was the diminutive form, toilette, that English adopted, starting in the 16th century, to mean a variety of things connected with primping. Toilet (toylett, twilet) could mean "A cloth cover for a dressing-table (formerly often of rich material and workmanship); now usually called a toilet-cover," says the OED. A lady's toilet might also be the assemblage of powders and pomades and implements used at the dressing table, or the process of applying them, or even the table itself. Next toilet expanded to mean "dressing room," then to that room with any lavatory fixtures included, and finally to the porcelain throne.

But toilé doesn't come into the story, as far as I know. Yes, it's a word -- a French adjective, and an English noun for a kind of lacework -- but until Clorox adopted it as an adorable description of its pink toilet, it had nothing to do with plumbing.

I don't mean to get too heavy here; it's an ad, and "Le Toilé" is intended to be silly (the ad refers readers to the website, where there are probably no actual odes). But if I'd been a copywriter on the pink toilet ad, I think I would have argued for La Toilette instead of Le Toilé. Why invent language facts when the truth would serve just as well?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

But, but, but ...

I didn't think I was confused about the different uses of but and though, but after reading Allan Metcalf's little lesson -- the latest installment in the new Lingua Franca blog -- I'm not so sure. My problem cropped up at this point:
Here’s the distinction: What follows But is the author’s main point. What follows though is a subordinate point.
(a) I would follow you anywhere in the world you’d care to go. But I don’t trust you.
(b) I would follow you anywhere in the world you’d care to go, though I don’t trust you.
Clear enough? In (a), the author won’t be following, because the distrust is too much. In (b), the author distrusts but is going to follow anyhow.
"Clear enough?" Absolutely not. I have no idea why Metcalf believes that in example (a), the "But" expresses sufficient distrust to negate the preceding avowal. He seems to read it as meaning "I would follow you if I trusted you," but for me, the sentiment is the same in both versions: I would follow you anywhere, but (or though) not blindly. But maybe this is one of those distinctions I didn't learn young enough; is it one most people recognize?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The language war on terror(ism)

Over at Literal-Minded, Neal Whitman explains that he was once among those who thought the phrase “war on terror” was a product of the 9/11 attacks, and who also disapproved of the phrase. Having now researched it, he shows clearly enough that “war on terror” was already current (if not nearly so widespread) decades earlier -- so we can't blame George Bush for it.

The first I heard of any discomfort with the usage was a query from a Globe reader back in 2003. He'd been hearing newscasters use "war on terror" interchangeably with "war on terrorism," and he wondered if that was OK. I answered, briefly, in my column:
They're an odd pair, terror and terrorism -- does any other ism mean the same thing as its root word? Stalin and Stalinism can't change places in a sentence, nor can sex and sexism, cube and Cubism. Why, then, can terror also mean terrorism?

Well, it's those pesky French again. In English, terror was just a word for dreadful fear till the French Revolution brought the bloody Reign of Terror in 1793. By 1801 "reign of terror" was recorded in English, and terror was no longer just personal fear but political brutality.

That capital-T Terror gave birth to terrorisme, a coinage ratified by the French Academy in 1798 and adopted into English the same year. But terror, thanks to the guillotine, was already in use as an abstract noun that meant intimidation by violence, threatened or actual.
I didn’t bother to quote the OED then, but now that I have room for it, here’s the entry (under terror):
4. reign of terror, a state of things in which the general community live in dread of death or outrage; esp. (with capital initials) French Hist. the period of the First Revolution from about March 1793 to July 1794, called also the Terror, the Red Terror, when the ruling faction remorselessly shed the blood of persons of both sexes and of all ages and conditions whom they regarded as obnoxious. Hence, without article or pl., the use of organized intimidation, terrorism.
It wasn't till a year later, in spring 2004, that Jon Stewart put the anti-terror argument into wider circulation, saying (not ad lib, but in a graduation speech), "We declared war on terror -- it's not even a noun, so, good luck.”  This prompted Geoff Pullum to conjecture that Stewart was relying on his grade-school notion of a noun as "a person, place, or thing," which was sadly deficient:
The way to tell whether a word is a noun in English is to ask questions like: Does it have a plural form (the terrors of childhood)? Does it have a genitive form (terror's effects)? Does it occur with the articles the and a (the terror)? Can you use it as the main or only word in the subject of a clause (Terror rooted me to the spot), or the object of a preposition (war on terror)? And so on. These are grammatical questions. Syntactic and morphological questions. Not semantic ones.
I can see how "war on terror" might have the sound of headline-writer's shorthand, and its economy probably has helped it proliferate; maybe that's why editor Bill Walsh, of Blogslot, objected to the phrase, claiming only "war on terrorism" was accurate. But terror has denoted a strategy (as well as an emotion) for two centuries, and it would probably take a heap of editorial scorn to stop it now.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What the cover-up covered up

Yesterday's news reports of the death of Matthew Stuart, brother of the locally notorious Charles Stuart, tended to share a minor but interesting inaccuracy.

In 1989, Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife on the way home from a childbirth class, blamed a (nonexistent) black assailant, and then, when his story fell apart, jumped off a bridge to his death before he could be arrested. But here's how the Globe (and a number of other news sources) described Matthew Stuart's role:
Matthew Stuart spent nearly three years in jail after pleading guilty to helping cover up the killing of Carole DiMaiti Stuart. He said he helped hide the gun believed to have been used by his brother, Charles Stuart, who blamed the crime on a black man.
Cambridge police have confirmed the death of Matthew Stuart, who helped his brother cover up the fatal shooting of his brother’s pregnant wife in 1989.
But of course Matthew and Charles didn't cover up the killing; it was reported instantly, by Charles Stuart himself, in a 911 call. They conspired and lied, but what they "covered up" was the evidence, not the shooting.

Journalism's rules account for some of the awkwardness in phrasing. We can’t call it "murder" or call Charles Stuart the killer, since he wasn’t charged and didn’t confess. So what’s the most economical edit that makes the report accurate? Is there a neater solution than "pleaded guilty to helping conceal evidence about the killing"?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

That's so cliche(d)!

Commenting on my "Cake or death?" post, Julia asked about my use of "so cliched":
I once used the word "cliched" in a college term paper. My prof drew a big red line through it and wrote "no such word!" next to it. ... Now it jumps off the page at me when someone uses it as you did in your post. Has the OED accepted it in the staggeringly long span I've been out of college? 
It has, Julia -- not that you need the OED's approval to use a word (and to call your prof arrogant and clueless). In 1989, just a few years after your college days, the Second Edition included the the adjective use of "cliched," citing a 1928 book by Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn): "There is no adjective but the cliché'd deafening that can fittingly describe the tornado of noise that had welcomed the recitation."

I don't know that anyone other than your teacher ever objected to cliched. But the adjective has stirred up some controversy in its more recent, Frenchy form: "That's so cliche!" I wrote about the innovation in 2003, after a  Globe reader complained about it; at the time, I said that
adjectival cliche is moving up fast. In expressions where there's a clear choice between cliche and cliched, the adjective is cliche about half the time. In most of those cases, it sneaks in by way of quotations - "It sounds cliche, but he really believed it'' (Miami Herald), or "I was brought up to love everybody, as cliche as that may sound'' (People magazine).* But it's not all spoken-word sloppiness: In the earliest citation I could find, a 1979 Washington Post review of the miniseries "Studs Lonigan,'' the writer himself says of father-son conflict, "It is an old cycle, so cliche it hurts.''
The OED was on to adjectival cliche in 1989, too, quoting the BBC's weekly, The Listener, from 1959: "The kind of fond reminiscence which comes rather too near the cliché view of human situations."

I have no idea what data I was relying on in my 2003 frequency estimate, but here's what Google Ngram Viewer has to say about so cliche vs. so cliched:

By now, I think, "so cliche" seems normal to a lot of younger speakers and writers. And I have a soft spot for it myself, as I confessed in that 2003 column, because it's such a natural choice: 
Though cliche came into English as a noun, it retains its French form -- and that form is a past participle, perfectly happy to be used as an adjective. English is full of such French words, some used as nouns (divorcee, souffle, negligee), others as adjectives (passe, flambe).
Even a stickler, it seems to me, might find it in his or her heart to approve so cliche

* There's no telling whether the source actually said "cliched" or "cliche," of course, but these instances show that the reporter and editor(s) all accepted so cliche as OK.