OED clusters

Today’s “word of the day” from the OED was “femme incomprise”. The list of nearby words contains:

  • femme (first quote 1814, from a letter of Byron)
  • femme de chambre (first quote 1741)
  • femme de ménage (first quote 1826)
  • femme du monde (first quote 1849)
  • femme fatale (first quote 1879; one wouldn’t guess that this is taken from an article in that well-known journal of cosmopolitan sophisticates, the St Louis Globe Democrat)
  • femme incomprise (first quote 1841)

I wonder if there is a bigger cluster of foreign words with a common root?

The other one I know and like, though it is not in strictly alphabetic order, is also quite impressive:

  • simpatico, simpatica (first quote 1864, “The Frau Professorin was less ‘simpatica’”, from the memoir of a certain H. Sidgwick)
  • sympathique (first quote 1859, in a letter of Queen Victoria, “The sight of a professor or learned man alarms me, and is not sympathique to me”)
  • sympathisch (first quote 1911)


Jules Verne, précurseur de Zazie?

There is undeniably a certain form a humor in the books of Jules Verne, but of a rather inoffensive kind, and the distracted geograph Paganel would probably be dismissed rather curtly by such a lively girl as Queneau’s Zazie. Nevertheless, while re-reading Les enfants de Capitaine Grant, I found a magnificent sentence that, I think, even Zazie would approve:

Les petits garçons et les petites filles, plus rageuses surtout, s’administraient des taloches superbes avec un entrain féroce.
(Les enfants du Capitaine Grant, 2ème partie, Chapitre XVI)

This is basically untranslatable; the literal meaning is something like

The boys and girls, even fiercer, exchanged superb blows with extreme alacrity.

but English words fail me to convey the finer meaning of taloche

And I was reading this book because, believe it or not, Jules Verne is now a Pléiade author! Of course, grudgingly, since only four of his novels were deemed worthy of this supreme honor of French letters. In addition to Les enfants…, we have 20000 lieues sous les mers and L’île mystérieuse, a trilogy, and Le sphinx des glaces, but obviously some strong reactionary faction must have resisted any attempt in adding De la terre à la lune, or Kéraban le Têtu, or Hector Servadac, or…

I also had not realized before the embarrassing chronological problems of the trilogy: Les enfants… happens in 1864–1865; 20000 lieux… begins in 1866; but then L’île mystérieuse, which is supposed to take place twelve years after the first part, begins in 1865…

What is the French for “derandomization”?

Well, in fact, it should be nothing else than dérandomisation. En effet, the Grand Robert tells us that randomisation was introduced in French by a person named Piéron in 1957, from the English, but adds that this word comes from the same old-French root randon which led to “random”, and (in French) to randonnéee (meaning a walk, usually a long country or mountain walk). Following to the etymology of randonnée, we read:

XIIe; du v. randonner (XIIe; – 1. Randonner) tiré des expressions à randon, de randon «avec impétuosité, violence» (randon au sens de «mouvement impétueux» est encore chez La Fontaine), de l’anc. franç. randir «courir avec impétuosité», du francique *rant (Wartburg) ou d’un comp. en re- de l’anc. franç. ander, du bas lat. *ambitare «courir» (Guiraud).

the beginning of which translates to

12th Century; from the verb. randonner (12th Century, see Randonner) coming from the expressions à randon, de randon, meaning “impetuously, violently” (randon in the sense of “impetuous movement” is still in La Fontaine), ….

This is of course confirmed by the O.E.D.

La cascade d’homologie

It can be very rewarding to read old mathematical papers, in terms of accessing insights and ideas that may have been filtered out in later transformations of the results they contain. In my modest experience, this does not extend to notation and terminology, and it is much easier to appreciate the insights in question after translating them into modern language and formalism. This is an area where, maybe, progress is usually fairly steady. But still, there can be exceptions. I was recently rather struck, while reading the recently published collection of letters between Henri Cartan and André Weil, to discover that when they were exchanging many letters on algebraic topology just after 1945, they used the charming name cascade for what is now known as a “long exact sequence” (in homology or cohomology). I think it is too bad this didn’t become the standard name; one could have imagined that triangles
A\rightarrow B\rightarrow C\rightarrow A[1]\rightarrow
would be called “Escherian cascades”…

Incidentally, this book of letters is very interesting to read, in no small part because of the extensive notes and comments by Michèle Audin. It is published by the SMF in the same series where letters between Grothendieck and Serre were also published a few years ago.