Thursday, May 21, 2009


I cannot tell you how many times in the last few months I have been asked by a French person why we use a particular word or phrase in English. I have only one response and that is that I honestly don't really know. There is a very definite difference between our two respected cultures. As
Americans, we couldn't care less about the etymology of words. In case you didn't know, etymology is the study of the history of words and how they change over time. The French on the other hand, know exactly what specific area of France a word was first created, why it was formed, and every nuance of the word.

For instance, the word champagne is something we are all familiar with. Its effervescence strikes a cord with our senses as we savor each sip. However, unless you are familiar with France, you may not know where this word came from. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, champagne is a noun that began its life as a new word in the 1660's. "Vin de Champagne," meaning wine of the Champagne region in the northwest of France. Originally, it meant any wine from this region, but in the 18th century, the focus shifted to its modern meaning. Now, I may have looked all this up online, but a French person would have this information handy in their brains. It would seem that every word is like this, as well.

I first thought it was ridiculous that I was constantly being asked the "why" question. What a strange habit this culture has gotten themselves into. But over time, I have come to appreciate this idiosyncrasy of theirs. As a lay historian, I appreciate historical stories, historical clothing, so why does it seem so strange to know the genesis of a particular word? I have grown to think of this curiosity as rather charming. It's too bad our cultural standard has allowed us to lose the knowledge or even the interest in learning about the history of our own lexicon.

Admittedly, with the younger generations, they may not be as focused on the history of their vocabulary, but ask anyone of a certain age and they will inevitably be delighted to share part of their heritage with you.

Of course, if you find yourself in a conversation these days, with the advent of the smartphone, our fingers can quickly ask the internet the all important history of a word. If you don't have a computer, and plan on actually conversing with the locals, you either have the choice of studying a word origin book carefully before coming for your visit or else just be prepared to laugh at your lack of knowledge.  As long as you are willing to say, "I don't know," more times than you ever thought humanly possible, you will be fine.

...and by the way, in case anyone asks or you are simply curious, while the word know has a history spanning many languages, its first recorded meaning from the 12th century is "to have sexual intercourse with." Now, you have something to add to the conversation.

Thank you for reading and bonne journée!