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Including a Special End Note on Metathesis
1. avoir un fun d’éléphant
Literally: To have elephant fun.
There’s a lyric in the song “Jambalaya” that speaks of having ‘big fun on the bayou.’ Elephant fun is wild and crazy times.
2. partir comme un petit poulet
to die like a wee chick
Here’s a rather sad and tender expression from Québec farmyards that means to die quietly and without pain as a tiny chick might.
3. faire rire les poissons
To make fish laugh
“I smell mendacity,” says Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” when Big Daddy detects that his family is telling fibs. The import of the expression is to tell giant whoppers, lies and preposterous stories so big they would make carp chuckle a bubble or two. Since fish are not known to laugh, the prevarication or fanciful tale is indeed an enormous one.
4. faire des pas de souris
To take mouse steps.
That is, to creep up on a topic slowly and with caution.
Michael Enright is a CBC broadcaster, presently the host of “Sunday Edition,” heard Sunday mornings on CBC Radio One across Canada. If you are starved for intelligent interviews, if you are bored with sixty-second “in-depth” sound bites heard on private radio or driven to tuning out the wet, gooey, sob-sister ‘dead baby’ interviews that fill the latter half of CBC Radio One’s weekday morning schedule, you will find Michael Enright a fine draft of bracing air. Tune him in. If you enjoy the excellent program “The Current,” you’ll want to hear the people Enright talks to as well.
My personal anecdote goes back more than 25 years to my days as a CBC Radio producer/director. Michael Enright was the host of a morning show. I was one of the in-studio directors. In live radio, host and director/producer develop little physical gestures and signs to convey how we think the program or a particular live interview is going.
Michael Enright had a little sign that he used which he called faire la souris, ‘to make the mouse.’ The gesture consisted of holding both hands in front of one’s face and rapidly moving the fingers as if they were mice digits. Through the large glass window that separated the radio studio from the control room, Michael and I used this when the person Michael was interviewing on the telephone suddenly turned (or was habitually) politically correct or all pious and wonderful. The guest being interviewed was presenting himself as so sweet and cute and adorable that he might as well be a mouselet reared up on its teeny hind feet with its wee front feet together as if in wiggly prayer. It meant that both Michael and I knew the guest was feeding us great buns of piety and bull roar. The mouse gesture was an inquiry. Michael Enright was asking: “Should I go after this turkey and try to embarrass the truth out of him or not?”
One of my favorite CBC gestures: faire la souris, an expression so apt so many times in modern life, in these days when every unpleasant truth appears shellacked with horseshit or daubed in a glutinous syrup of unction, specious humility or ass-saving spin. Just check out the speeches of Stephen Harper. Thank you, Michael Enright, for la souris! And no, I am NOT appearing any time soon on Michael’s radio program.
5. venter à écorner les boeufs
The wind is strong enough to take the horns off a bull.
In older English a beef was a bull or a cow. It’s a word that entered English from French after the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE. Beef is what happened to boeuf when spoken from English mouths. Soon after its borrowing, beef came to mean the meat of a cow or ox.
Here's an excellent trivia question for the verbal smartypants tonight at supper: what is the correct English plural of the word beef? Is there a plural? Yes. The plural of beef is beeves. “Many very fine beeves stamped upon the field.” Writing in what we today term Middle English, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer used that plural form in his Canterbury Tales. It’s a word whose loss from daily speech I regret.
Many fine beeves
6. attendre la poule pour pouvoir déjeuner le matin
To wait for the chicken to provide breakfast
That is, we have so little to eat, we must wait until the hen lays an egg.
7. pauvre comme un rat d’église
Here is a loan translation into French from the British ‘poor as a church mouse.’ French poverty afflicts a rat instead.
8. arriver en bouledogue
To burst in like a bulldog
That is, to make a noisy entrance, to arrive on the scene like a barking bulldog or a blowing whirlwind. Bouledogue is a borrowing into French of the English word bulldog.
9. On ne demande pas à un cheval de pondre un oeuf.
You don’t ask a horse to lay an egg.
That is, you don’t ask for the impossible.
10. s’asseoir sur un nid de guêpes
To sit down on a wasps’ nest
That is, to face problems squarely, to cope with unforeseen difficulties.
Origin of Guêpe
The common French word for wasp guêpe is a classic example of a process every budding etymologist needs to know, as he or she watches words roll down through the centuries.
Guêpe is from exactly the same root as our English word wasp.
We learned last month about the origin of the French accent, the circumflex. It often stands for a lost s sound in French words. In Old French wasp was guespe. In modern French guêpe is what remains, with a circumflex over the first e to show that, once upon a time, there was an s there.
Guespe is the result of the primary borrowing from Latin vespa ‘wasp,’ being then changed slightly and influenced by a Germanic word for wasp that appears to have been buzzing around those Roman army camps in ancient Gall.
By the ordinary rules of verbal inheritance in Romance languages, we might expect the modern French word for wasp to be *vêpe. But the word begins with gu- instead of v. Modern French guêpe is pronounced ‘gep’ with a hard g. That’s because ancient Galls beginning to speak proto-French heard a hard Teutonic guttural or a forceful Teutonic w-sound at the first of the word, not a softly lipped v. The Gallic pronunciation was influenced by Germanic speakers in their midst who used a reflex of the Middle Low German words for wasp, wepse and wespe.
Both the Teutonic and Latin wasp words stem from a common Proto-Indo-European ancestor root *webh- whose basic meaning is ‘weave.’ To the ancients, wasps appeared to weave their papery nests from chewed vegetable matter mixed with their spittle – and that is not too far from the fact. The PIE root *webh- shows up in an English surname like Webster. In Old English, a webster was a female weaver. Of course English-speaking spiders spin a web too.
The earliest Old English words for wasp were wæfs and wæps. But there came a time in the development of English when that ps consonant cluster was no longer easy to say, and so the Anglo-Saxons began saying waesp. They interchanged the two consonants. That’s one form of metathesis. Does such metathetic transposition belong strictly to the hazy past when big blond Viking dudes in wolf-skins and helmets ran around swilling mead and sacrificing small slaves to Wotan? No way.
Here’s a totally modern example of metathesis from the USA, in Ebonic dialects, in daily African-American speech: “I’m aksing you to do it” instead of “I’m asking you to do it.” The consonant cluster’s letters were interchanged because it proved easier to say.
One metathetic alternative way to say the word modern is ‘modren.’ This metathesis is now common throughout substandard North American English. Of course, the near future may have a surprise waiting for moderns. Sometimes the metathetic version of a word becomes so popular that it replaces the original so-called ‘correct’ pronunciation. Then the fussbudget keepers of verbal orthodoxy fume like steam vents newly tapped — all to scant avail. For language use is consensual, seldom contractual.
Indeed, as a language evolves, metathesis may play a significant part in its word development. Let’s look at a few English examples.
Old English Modern English
Metathesis may involve the transposition within a word of letters, sounds, or syllables. The chief reasons for consonant metathesis are euphony (‘sounding better’) and ease of pronunciation. In euphony, the transposed consonants simply sound better to the hearer and speaker. At other times it is easier for the speaker to say the word if he or she reverses or reorders the consonants. That’s all metathesis means in one of its common linguistic uses. Metathesis was a Hellenistic Greek word for ‘transposition.’
Greek μετáθεσις = meta – Greek ‘across, after’ but the preposition here means ‘in another place’ + thesis – noun, a placing, a putting. Metathesis is putting something in a place other than its usual place. If a student puts before his teacher in written or spoken word his work, he is presenting his thesis, a placement of his scholarly endeavours.
Ease of Pronunciation
Some consonant clusters are difficult to utter for certain groups of speakers. A typical clinical example in speech therapy and language-acquisition studies is the very young English-speaking child who says ‘pasghetti’ (sic) on trying to reproduce a heard spaghetti, or who speaks it aloud upon first encountering the written word, just after he or she has learned to read. Such a transposition or metathesis merely means that most English speakers acquire the ability to pronounce an initial a ‘pVs’ cluster before they can easily say the initial sp consonant cluster. Capital V stands for vowel in phonemic shorthand.
Et, mes chers élèves, c’est tout aujourd’hui.
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
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origin of the word wasp
origine de guepe
metathesis in linguistics
Michael Enright CBC anecdote
plural of beef
Quebec folk sayings
French Canadian folk sayings
modern expressions from Quebec French