À la…

A few months ago, I wondered what could be the largest cluster of foreign words in the Oxford English Dictionary, citing the examples of femme something-or-other and sympathique and company. It turns out that there is a much larger one! Here is the à la cluster:

à la 1579
à la bonne heure 1750
à la broche 1806
à la brochette 1821
à la carte 1816
à la crème 1741
à la débandade 1779
à la fourchette 1817
à la Française 1589
à la modality 1753
à la mode 1637
à-la-modeness 1669
à la mort 1536
à la page 1930
à la roi 1852
à la royale 1853
à la Russe 1775
à la Turquie 1676

That’s no less than 18 items (the date on the right is the first OED citation). It’s interesting that so many have to do with food, and even more that three or four are basically synonyms of “in fashion” (this is what à la page basically means). I have to admit to being partial to à-la-modeness for its translanguage qualities, although I don’t know if I will be able to use it intelligently anytime soon (though one never knows; after all, I did manage to sneak ptarmigan in a recent paper…)

A missing word

From the blog of the rare books collection of the ETH Library, I just learnt that the word for the study and classification of grape species that I was looking for is “ampelography” (ampélographie in French).

(The relevance of this word to my daily life is that the computers on my home network are named after grapes; red grapes are reserved for desktops and white for laptops.)

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…