Québec Bread Words
& French-Canadian Meanings of the Word Habitant
Menum menum! That’s “Yummy!” in Québec. And it’s my reaction to the golden crust of crunchy Montréal baguettes. This column offers French bread words and phrases, some unique to Québec, others simply worth knowing.
Pain, French ‘bread’
Like most French words, pain derives from Latin where panis is ‘bread.’ The root is *pa whose semantic force in Indo-European languages has to do with eating. Similar-rooted Latin words are pabulum (horse feed, hence the Canadian baby food Pablum) and pasco ‘I feed.’ In postclassical Latin the word pastura appears, ancestor of English word pasture, literally a ‘place where animals feed.’
The literal meaning of the word baguette is stick-shaped loaf. The long thin loaf became popular in early 18 th century London, its rep brought back from Paris by traveling Englishmen. The French word, with a diminutive ending added to the root, came from Latin baculum ‘stick.’
There are several interesting Québec expressions containing the French word for ‘bread,’ among them pain-fesses, a double bread-loaf shaped like human buttocks. La fesse means buttock or bum-cheek. But then English has its buns! They are also made of bread.
• Être né pour un petit pain is ‘to be born into the underclass,’ to be a second-class citizen by birth and to be assured of only bread scraps, literally ‘to be born worthy of receiving only the little piece of bread.’ I remember receiving an interesting email from a site visitor who told me how her mother always used the phrase when teaching her kids to be humble and of how deeply annoying this ingrained, Quebec-priest-sanctioned humility was to her as a child and how she strove to overcome it as a young woman out on her own in Montreal.
• In Québec, French toast is pain doré ‘golden bread.’ In Paris, French toast is pain perdu. The bread is lost (perdu) when dunked or set to soak in the eggy froth of the mixture before frying.
• Perdre un pain de sa fournée is literally ‘to lose a loaf from your oven’ but it means ‘to be very disappointed’ or ‘to have cold water thrown on one.’ This is a common Quebec expression still.
• Ambitionner sur le pain bénit means ‘to go way overboard,’ ‘to take outrageous advantage of a situation,’ le pain bénit being the consecrated bread of Holy Communion.
• My favourite bread term from old Québec is pain Jack, a square loaf of a French bread said to derive from pain Jacobin, which might have been bread baked by Dominicans at their first convent in Paris situated on the Rue St. Jacques near an old Parisian entrance route, St. James’ Gate, which was porta Jacobina in monkish medieval Latin. Or pain Jack might recall a loaf popular with the later Jacobins, the ruthless terrorists of the French Revolution.
Homemade bread in Québec is pain d’habitant or pain de ménage. A less felicitous translation of pain d’habitant is ‘farmers’ bread’ because the word habitant has very special importance in provincial history, one worth exploring. It is part of many Québec food phrases like bouillon d’habitant ‘country soup.’
Baking bread in an outdoor Quebec oven
Etymology & Québec History of the Word Habitant
At different times in the history of Québec, this familiar word has had different meanings. Habitant began as a legal term in the “new” feudalism of New France. A habitant was a free proprietor who held land in tenure within the seigneurial system. This system, in legal force from 1627 until 1854, was a way to distribute and occupy land in a new colony.
Seigneuries were large tracts of land granted to the richest colonists of New France, often sons of French nobles. In return for their provision of teaching and medical services, convents and other religious bodies could also be seigneuries. These large tracts of land were also granted to high military officers and certain civil administrators. In turn, the seigneur divided his land grant into parcels, and leased these smaller farms by contract to tenants, called censitaires or habitants. The habitant was obliged to put the land into fertile production as soon as possible, to grow enough food to sustain his family, and to be productive enough to have some crops or money left over to pay his tenant’s rent to the seigneur. This fee was the famous cens et rente, the cens being a small feudal tithe, the rent being money or its equivalent in produce.
“Les Habitants” sentimentalized as quaint rustics and dopey Catholic bumpkins in 1852 by Canadian genre painter Cornelius Krieghoff (1815 - 1872)
The seigneur was given other rights pertaining to his land. A seigneur could set up a court of law, a mill, a commune, and sell licenses to hunt, to fish, and to cut wood on his land. The habitant was under legal obligation to grind grain at the mill of his seigneur. As well, the seigneur could demand a certain number of days of free work from each tenant. This required labour was une corvée. As the corvée was technically illegal, it generated resentment, and was eventually suppressed. By the 1850s in Québec, corvée gained a new meaning and denoted communal volunteer work that local people performed to help one another build a barn, a new silo, or a church.
As the 19th century dawned, almost 80 percent of Quebeckers lived as habitants, and another system of land distribution, the township system — still familiar to us — began to grow alongside the seigneurial holdings. Tenured land favoured the wealthy seigneurs and prevented economic and industrial progress, so, as the century reached midpoint, a bitter struggle to end the seigneuries ensued. Finally, in 1854, they were abolished and habitants could claim farmlands as their own.
“The Habitant Farm” (1856) is yet another cozy fantasy from the brush of one of Canada's best painters of Christmas cards, the gooey and commercial sentimentalist Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872).
To step backward a moment in time, by the end of the 18th century, a growing number of Quebeckers held no land even in tenure. They worked as farmhands for landed peasants, and they, too, came to be called habitants in North American French. Eventually in Québécois, habitant meant simply any ‘farmer.’ In modern Québec French, it also carries a subsidiary meaning reeking of classist put-down. For example, un habitant can mean ‘a person with boorish manners.’ Faites pas l’habitant icette could be translated: ‘Don’t try that country hick act around here.’
Etymology of the Word Habitant
The immediate Latin root of the 13th-century French word habitant ‘dweller, owner, inhabitant’ is the Latin verb habitare, a frequentative form of the older verb habere ‘to have, to possess.’ Habere was also used extensively in Latin as one of the auxiliary verbs to build complex verb tenses. Other auxiliary verbs known to students of European languages include German haben, sein, werden, dürfen, or French avoir, être, pouvoir and devoir.
The prime semantic force of Latin frequentative verb forms was to indicate repetition of the action signified by the standard verb. Thus volare in Latin means ‘to fly.’ Its frequentative form volitare means ‘to flap wings repeatedly, to flit, to dart across the sky.’ Likewise habitare’s basic sense is ‘to have or possess repeatedly or persistently’ and thence ‘to occupy (land), to reside, to abide, to dwell, to remain in a place.’ Its present participle habitans, habitantis eventually produces English nouns like inhabitant and our French word under discussion today, l’habitant.
In France, recorded in print by the year 1654 CE, un habitant was a citizen to whom the king had granted land in one of the colonies of France. By the late seventeenth century in La Nouvelle France, in territory eventually to become the Canadian province of Québec, the word habitant had become a synonyn for standard continental French words like colon ‘colonist’ and cultivateur ‘farmer.’ The more exact senses arising in Québec were detailed above.
In the 19th and early 20th century, the word habitant in English referred to anyone from rural Quebec, not always in a pejorative sense.
Eh bien, let’s close the habitant bread cupboard.
We’ve loafed around enough for today.
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
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