French in 10 urban legends
Linguistics is not an exact science. In matters of etymology, however, rigor is in order. Etymology is the study of the meaning and origin of words . Thus, to say that the word etymology derives from ancient Greek is to do etymology. Etymologically, ἐτυμολογία (etumología) is made up of the words ἔτυμος (étumos) for true and λόγος (lόgos) for speech . The etymology is therefore the true word . But sometimes the etymology of certain words is based on urban legends. False etymology: let’s untangle the true from the false !
True or false meaning of words: what is folk etymology?
Folk etymology , also called pseudo-etymology or folk etymology, denotes false etymology . It is often based on an unverified or disproved popular belief. And in French etymology, urban legends are numerous. True or false ? Make way for the debunk !
True or false: The popular etymology in 10 riddles
❌ “Russian soldiers brought the word bistro to France”
According to La Mère Catherine , a restaurant on Place du Tertre in Montmartre, it was Russian soldiers who brought the word bistro(t) to Paris . On the front of the restaurant, an old plaque from the Vieux Montmartre tourist office confirms this.
But what does it have to do with Russian ? Following the Battle of Paris in 1814, Russian troops occupied the capital. A curfew is imposed on the soldiers. In order to be able to drink and eat quickly before the fateful hour, the Cossacks then cried быстро! быстро! (bistro, bistro). In French ? Quick quick ! And the word would remain to describe small cafes. The story is fun. The date of La Mère Catherine is even precise enough to convince. Yet this origin is an urban legend .
So bistro comes from Russian? True or false ? It is surely false. Firstly because there is no proof or testimony of this practice of Russian soldiers under Napoleon. Then because it was not until the end of the 19th century that the word bistro really began to become popular. The first written trace dates from 1884 in the Souvenirs de la Roquette by Abbé Moreau. Note also that the word быстро is pronounced approximately “bistra” in Russian (with an a and not an o). Which also tends to rule out this historical theory. Another explanation derives the word bistro from certain regionalisms: bistraud, mastroquet or bistroquet (servant of the wine merchant).
✅ ❌ “The verb jabber comes from the Breton words for bread and wine ” (more false than true?)
In 1870, during the war between the French and the Prussians, Breton soldiers had trouble making themselves understood. When it was time to eat, they jabbered the words… bara and gwin !Unless they said bara (bread) and gwenn (white). Bara gwenn? The Bretons would thus have marked their astonishment at the presence of white bread on the menu. Since then, the urban legend has imposed itself as a certain etymology. But nothing is less certain. True or false ? The historical evidence leans towards the false.
Three centuries earlier, Montaigne was already using the verb in his Essays . He speaks, in Book II, of a “basty book of gibberish Spanish in Latin endings”. Fifty years before him, Rabelais wrote: “My friend, I don’t understand this barragouyn , and yet if you want people to hear you, speak another language” ( Pantagruel , Book I, Chapter IX). If the word already seemed to mean “to express oneself roughly, in an incomprehensible way”, its origins remain enigmatic. Perhaps a certain kinship with the word barbarian , derived from ancient Greek, to designate non-Greek foreigners? The mystery remains.
Not that it is one of the specialties of the country – officially renamed North Macedonia. We are talking here about the Macedonia of Alexander the Great . A multi-ethnic Empire made up of diverse peoples. Just as the salad is composed of different vegetables. Mixed salad is sometimes referred to as ” Russian salad “, another cultural and ethnic metaphor for cooking.
✅ “The word candle comes from Algeria”
The city of Béjaïa in northern Algeria has been renowned since the Middle Ages for the quality of its wax. Used in the production of candles, this wax became so popular in Europe that the word candle originated from it . Nothing to do with the false etymology which associates candle with the verb move , according to the movement of the flame.
Béjaïa thus joins the long list of towns that have left their name to a word in everyday life. Examples include the city of Gruyères and the Emmental region in Switzerland . As for the blue jeans , it derives from the blue of Genoa ( blu di Genova in Italian ) while the canvas of Nîmes gave rise to denim . And the cork stoppers come from Liège? True or false ? It’s wrong. They are simply made of cork oak.
❌ “The slacker is called that because it’s nothing “
It is a deformation of the word feigning , which is still found in some pronunciations. The lazy person is therefore the one who pretends , who pretends (to do nothing else, precisely). On the other hand, farniente derives from far niente , “to do nothing” in Italian.
❌ “The word frenzied comes from strength “
The madman demonstrates mad strength. Hence the word frenzied . True or false ? Fake. Forcené was previously written forsené , composed of two Latin roots: fors (outside) and sensus (meaning). A madman certainly has a violent behavior, but it is above all a person who acts “out of sense” .
✅ “The word toll has nothing to do with the verb to pay “
In medieval Latin, the pedaticum was a seigniorial right to “set foot”. It was perceived when a pedestrian wanted to cross a road, a bridge or a river. The word gave péage in modern French , without any connection therefore with the verb pay .
❌ “ What a beak! gave Quebec »
“What a beak! would have cried Jacques Cartier’s crew as they approached New France from the tip of Île d’Orléans. At the beginning of the 18th century, the historian Bacqueville de la Potherie claimed that the name of the province of Quebec had its origins there. In reality, Quebec is rather a borrowing from Algonquin , where the word kebec means “strait, narrow passage”.
✅ ❌ “The word email is an Anglicism ” (neither true nor false?)
“I’ll send you the email ASAP!” This sentence, which startupers should know well, is a good example of Anglicism. But not so fast! The word mail , short for e-mail , has unrecognized French origins. If mail means mail in English, it comes from the old French male . In the 12th century, it was a leather bag that was used precisely to transport mail.
❌ “The word snob was born in Oxford ”
Oxford students without noble ancestry would have been forced to add sine nobilitate (without nobility) next to their name. A Latin mention abbreviated as s.nob . This did not prevent them from adopting the same social codes as their aristocratic comrades. Hence their snobbish attitude. And the origin of the word. So, true or false ? This urban legend is above all a beautiful illustration of retroacronymy , the act of attributing to a word a false origin of acronym or initials. G entlemen O nly, L adies F orbidden for golf is another example.
BONUS – True or false: We still don’t know where the expression “OK” comes from?
That is true. Two small letters and yet the word with certainly the greatest number of popular etymologies :
The business manager Otto Kaiser would have affixed his initials OK on each package, after verification and before shipment.
“0K”, an annotation used by British sailors for 0 killed (zero deaths) would have become OK.
Όλα Καλά (Ola Kala) means all is well in Modern Greek. Greek workers would have popularized this use in the United States.
Okay would come from the French ” Au quai! ” », an expression used in Louisiana to authorize the deposit of bales of cotton in good condition on the banks of the Mississippi.