posted by Simon Kemp
The weather is getting warm. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky. In the garden, the strawberries are ripening and the clematis is in bloom. In my world, that can mean only one thing: it must be EXAM SEASON! For too long, this blog has been content to inform and entertain. It’s high time we had some Formal Assessment.
‘Chassez l’intrus’ (‘Flush out the intruder!’) is the French language’s rather aggressive and paranoid way of saying ‘find the odd one out’. So, below are five facts about French. Four of them are true*. One of them is false**. Your task is to chasser l’intrus.
* Strictly speaking, four of them are believed to be true by many eminent historians of the French language, which is not quite the same thing, but for the purposes of this examination, we are going to pretend that it is.
** One of them is definitely false because I made it up earlier this morning.
It is NOT PERMITTED to scroll down to find out the answers until the candidate has plumped for the one they think is fake.
It is PERMITTED for candidates to test their French teachers on the facts and see how many they didn’t know, and/or to attempt to persuade them that the false one is true.
It is NOT PERMITTED, subsequent to the test, for candidates to immediately forget the four true facts and just remember the one I made up.
OK, here goes:
1. The reason the French use the same word, pas, for the negative ‘ne… pas’ construction and le pas, meaning a footstep, is that… they’re the same word. In Old French, the negative was made by ne alone, so ‘I’m not walking’ would simply be ‘je ne marche’. If your feet were especially sore, however, you’d be entitled to say ‘je ne marche pas’, or ‘I’m not walking a single step.’ Gradually the pas started turning up in other negatives too, until eventually it became an essential part of the construction.
2. The French word for a hedgehog, le hérisson, derives from a confusion between Anglo-Norman French and Old English at the medieval court of William the Conqueror. King William’s third son, the future King William II (known as Rufus), was famed for his unkempt appearance with long hair and beard. He was mocked by French-speaking courtiers for looking like a hedgehog, and nicknamed by English speakers the ‘hairy son’ of the family. Over time, the cross-linguistic insults merged, and le hérisson became an alternative French word for a hedgehog, and later the accepted name of the animal.
3. The French word for a chair was originally la chaire. It became la chaise due to the fashion among sixteenth-century women to pronounce as a z any single letter r with a vowel before and after it. Chaire has an r sandwiched between an i and an e, so got pronounced ‘chaize’, and later the spelling followed suit. Fashionable ladies of the period would also refer to their husbands as ‘mon mazi’ and to the capital city as ‘Pazis’, but those ones didn’t catch on so well.
4. The French word for a dustbin is la poubelle because bins were introduced to France by Monsieur Poubelle, and named in his honour.
5. English borrowed the French word gentil three times to make three different words. It first entered English as gentle, with the original sense of noble-born (as in gentleman). Then, once gentle in English had shifted to mean mild or kind, we borrowed the French word a second time, now as genteel, to get back its sense of the upper classes. Thirdly, in the seventeenth century we borrowed it again to make the English word jaunty. If jaunty doesn’t look much like the other two, that’s because it’s a (slightly rubbish) attempt to capture the modern French pronunciation of gentil in English spelling.
Answers below. No peeking until you’ve made your choice!
Fact 1 is TRUE. In Old French you could also say ‘je ne bois goutte’ (I’m not drinking a drop) or ‘il ne coud point’ (he’s not sewing a stitch), along with other similar expressions. The constructions ‘ne…goutte’ and ‘ne…point’ are also still in existence, if rather old-fashioned now, and similarly detached from their original meanings of ‘drop’ and ‘stitch’.
Fact 2 is FALSE. But still a good way of remembering the French word for hedgehog.
Fact 3 is TRUE. I know, it sounds totally ridiculous, but apparently it really was the fashion to do that, and was mentioned by Erasmus. ‘La chaire’ still exists in French as a rostrum, Papal throne or professorial chair.
Fact 4 is TRUE. And is consequently my all-time favourite French word. I shall be returning to M. Poubelle and his amazing new bin idea in another post in the near future.
Fact 5 is TRUE. And just dull enough to try to convince you that it was the one I’d made up.
If you got the right answer, WELL DONE! If you didn’t, don’t worry – the people who got the right answer were only guessing anyway.