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L’épluchette was a corn-husking bee in Quebec. Today the modern expression finds its meaning as, usually, a ‘corn roast.’ In olden days friends and neighbours would gather to husk and cook fresh corn. In earliest years the gatherings were for communal harvesting of corn crops. Later on, among Acadians and Quebeckers, corn bees served as social meeting parties for young people of the locality. Games to encourage social mixing sprang up.
One Acadian tradition at a corn-husking bee taught that any young man who happened upon a cob with a red corn kernel or two visible among the yellow kernels was permitted to kiss any girl on his right. Naturally, enterprising young swains were not above pre-opening a corn cob and perhaps adding a little red colour to one or two kernels.
If the husk (French épis), the outer protective covering of an ear of corn, bore a reddish tinge, that too could be the cause of a kiss. The man finding the ear of corn with reddish husks held it high so that all the huskers could see it. Then he claimed his osculatory prize, the privilege of bussing the maiden to his right.
Some French Word Forms
éplucher - French verb: to pluck (wool), to clean, to pick (feathers off a bird), to peel (fruit or potatoes)
éplucheur - continental French for potato peeler (person or device)
les épluchures - peelings, kitchen scraps, then refuse
This very old French word begins its journey to a Quebec corn field in classical Latin, with the word pilus ‘hair.’ In the street language of Roman soldiers was a verb pilare ‘to remove hair, to cut hair.’ English has a descendant of the same root in the medicine cabinet, where a depilatory lotion is one that removes unwanted body hair.
Several hundred years later a version of pilare is kicking around early Italian as piluccare ‘to remove hair, to remove an animal’s hide, to skin.’ This was borrowed into early French as peluchier and attested by 1194 CE is espeluchier. By 1508 CE that is contracted to esplucher, and finally we see one of the origins of the French acute accent on an initial e.
Origin of a French Acute Accent
An s that came after an initial vowel did not have much of a chance at long life in medieval French. A letter s so-placed began to disappear in early French pronunciation, so that esplucher was pronounced without the s sound and the initial e sound was lengthened. But French writers of manuscripts, copyists who had grown up hearing the s in esplucher spoken, thought this new pronunciation was mistaken and that in some way the written word should show that there used to be an s in its spelling. So the copyist monk would place a small mark over a word beginning with the letters es. The mark indicated there was an unspoken s in the word. Over the letter e, that marked evolved to look like this: é. Thus began one use of an acute accent in old French manuscripts.
Origin of the French Circumflex Accent
The circumflex accent in written French (hôpital) also indicates a missing s. Compare older French hospital and modern English hospital, from a medieval Latin word hospitale whose original meaning was something like ‘foyer’ or reception area for arriving guests. The words hostel and hotel stem from the same Latin word, the first keeps the s, the second loses the s, and so we can deduce that the French spelling of hotel is quite likely to use a ‘missing-s’circumflex: hôtel. In fact, the circumflex began as a little superscript s written above its preceding vowel by medieval copyist monks in the scriptoria of ancient libraries.
Meanings of Éplucher
In earliest French the verb éplucher (in any of its primordial forms) first meant ‘to clean.’ Later other shades of sense were added, some of which persist in the verb's modern meanings. To winnow grain and to clean chaff from various harvest grains are verbal senses not too far removed from current semantic hues of éplucher such as to peel (fruit), to card (wool), to pluck (feathers off a chicken or turkey), to shell (peas or nuts).
The English verb to pluck may be derived distantly from the same root verb as éplucher. Pluck’s immediate verbal ancestors were forms like Middle Dutch plocken and Middle Low German plocken. Some etymologists believe the Germanic forms ultimately go back to the same misty Italian verb piluccare. In Old English manuscripts there is a verb apluccian ‘to pick out,’ ‘to gather.’
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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