The metro station Syntagma, which means Constitution in Greek is in the heart of Athens. It is a demonstration led by a Greek general at the Palais Royal (now the Greek Parliament) in 1843, demanding a constitution for the country that gave its name to this stop. In French, however, “syntagme” is a grammatical term that means group of words. One needs the help of etymology to understand the link between the two meanings. In Greek, “syntagma” means thing arranged, composition, doctrine, organization, putting together : the link between the two words becomes transparent. And for the linguist that I am, to pass every day by the Syntagma stop is a small moment of grammatical happiness.
Linnetmoss (Linnet thank you) drew my attention to the word “buée” that I used in Haiku (4) (“mist”, in English the only one syllable word I could use in English (that I know of) but that did not satisfy me entirely). It has a form and a pronunciation that indicates quite clearly that it is a French word, that is to say a word that has naturally evolved from Latin to French, which is quite often the case of one or two syllable words (while longer words have often been borrowed later to Latin, although this is not an absolute rule). I used this word in a haiku to evoke the vapour coming out of the mouth when it is cold. Its lexical origin is not as transparent, as some other words. So it was good to discover how the word has evolved. The starting point in gallo-roman bucata “laundry” has followed the French phonetic evolution to produce a much shorter found around the thirteenth century, buée. Its meaning extended later to evaporation generated by the washing. The word then lost its linkage with the washing process to simply designate the steam. What a pleasure to see the waltz of language evolution
When writing about Based on a True Story , I used the words vrai and véridique in French. I did not think using true in both cases would be right in English and in the second case I chose the English word credible, expressing “reflecting a concern for truth” (and I could have used truthful). I wondered what the difference in meaning was between these two words and véritable , another word of the same family . It is not surprising that vrai “true” comes from Vulgar Latin veracus, as a result of the natural evolution of the word to French, because French words (and not those borrowed from Latin at a later date) are generally short. Véritable comes from classical Latin: it is a noun derived from the noun vérité “whose existence or reality can not be doubted.” Véridique “reflecting a concern for truth” also comes from the Latin and classical veridicus and dicere “say”. Different shades of meanings for each of these words: the first word’s emphasis is on the true / false distinction, the second emphasises on the reality (often translated by real in English), and the third on accuracy. It is fascinating to note that these words are used in the appropriate context by native speakers without them not necessarily being aware of the subtle nuances between words.
This French idiomatic expression “as easy as putting a letter in the mailbox” (passer comme une lettre à la poste) was first used to refer to the ease of digestion and is still used today to evoke what is easy and trouble-free. Maybe not for long. The ritual of letter writing, in the era of technology, increasingly seems, to generations born with technology, a long and perhaps tedious process : date the letter and then write the letter in one’s best writing, avoiding ink stains, sign, fold, insert the letter into an envelope, before walking to the letter box. It‘s a safe bet that the meaning of this term will become less and less transparent in the future. As for me, this pretty mailbox near my place makes me want to write letters for the sake of putting them in the mailbox.
The origin of the word suranné (“quaint”) I used in a post , a few days ago, intrigued me. Originally, in the twelfth century, the word simply meant, “which has more than a year.” In the 16th century, the word generally means “old, old”, or “belongs to a bygone era”. The word itself is formed on an, “year” and sur “on”. Today it is often used in a nostalgic context about the decor of a hotel or a house, its furniture, or the general feeling one has in a house. More often than not, in a context that makes us want to. return in the past
In French, when the heart is large (avoir un grand coeur), it is generous, when light, it is rather happy. In English, big hearts are rather generous, but in French they are rather sad. In both languages, though, when it is heavy, it is sad. Who knows why!
My fascination with the way the meaning of words evolves will never falter. In the case of the French merci, it is interesting that the first sense of the Latin mercedem was “reward, grace, favor“. The meaning is then somehow projected onto the one who receives a favor, hence the sense of gratitude, while Italian and Spanish remained closer gratias in Latin. In English, thank, comes from the Indo-European root think, “think”, which then meant “good thought,” and finally “gratitude”. It seems that despite the variety of the roots, the importance of the words seems to be agreed upon in most languages.