Saturday, September 13, 2008

flotsam, jetsam...and jettison

My first encounter with the terms "flotsam" and "jetsam" was as an enraptured kid watching the wonder that was "The Little Mermaid". Flotsam and Jetsam were the names of Ursula's two pet eels (who dutifully fulfilled her evil tasks), but it wasn't until much, much later (till now, in fact), that I learned the exact definitions of these two related, yet distinct, terms.

Before digging into flotsam and jetsam, we must first look at another word: "jettison". Jettison came to us via the Anglo-French noun, geteson, the "action of throwing", and ultimately from the Latin verb, jactare, "to throw". Jettison, once a noun meaning "a voluntary sacrifice of cargo to lighten a ship's load in distress" entered English in the 15th century. The verb has been with us since the 19th century. Jettison these days has separated from its ship association, and can simply mean "to discard".

From jettison we get jetsam. Its original form, jetson, a syncopated form of jetteson, was soon perverted to jetsom (the OED notes this may have perhaps come by association with native words ending in -some). Jetsam is a noun denoting the goods jettisoned from a ship.

These days flotsam and jetsam are almost always paired; even pop culture has seized onto this phrase, as we saw with Ursula's eels. Flotsam more specifially refers to wreckage floating in the sea, and is dervied from Old French, floter, "to float".

Who knew ship wreckage had such specific names? Through looking at language, we can learn so much about the history of our culture -- these example in particular indicate our sea-faring nature, and the journeys and pillages that were all a part of founding the New World.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Pardon My French

In French’s long history of influencing English, many words have changed hands. I spoke earlier (and will, in fact, usually keep on speaking unless someone makes me stop) about the role of French loans in Middle English, and the fascinating way the language accommodates and naturalizes those words until it’s hard to tell who got what from where. (“State,” for example, is a French loan, anglicized from the Old French estat, which has since become état in Modern French.)

Today, though, I want to talk about words we consider English language that are still notably French. The modern speaker is familiar with more French expressions than he or she might realize, from déjà vu (French for “already seen”) to legerdemain (lěj'ər-də-mān'), sleight of hand, which, appropriately enough, translates directly to “light of hand” in modern French. Here are some words and expressions in English which retain a literal French translation:

gendarme (zhän'därm', zhäɴ'därm'):
From the French gens d'armes, "people at arms," it now means“any foreign policeman, particularly a French one” (cf. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.) I was surprised to realize that this word is considered adopted to the degree that it’s even legal in Scrabble (which is just as well, because it netted me 68 points.)

bonhomie (bŏn'ə-mē'): “good nature, the quality of being a good fellow.” (OED)

loyalty or partiality to one’s comrades (Also esprit de corps, another French phrase that translates to “spirit of the corps”)

joie de vivre:
Literally, “joy of living.”

à la carte: has nothing to do with the dessert cart—it means “on the card,” or on the menu

à la mode: has no literal connection to ice cream. It means “in fashion,” so I can only assume it was quite trendy at one point to put ice cream on everything.

au jus:
It drives me crazy when I hear people talk about “A French dip sandwich with au jus.” “Au jus” means “with juice.”

cliché: this one is somewhat convoluted. It comes from the past participle of the French cliquer, “to click,” and the OED tells me it was “applied by die-sinkers to the striking of melted lead in order to obtain a proof or cast.” Its original meaning was a proof or stereotype copy, and it later came to mean a photo negative as well. It’s not a long intellectual jump from mass-produced casts or photographs to mass-produced sayings.

faux pas:
literally, “false step.” I imagine the social meaning stemming from a particularly poor dancer treading on the dress of some countess or other and tearing the whole skirt off, but that’s just because it amuses me.

in lieu of: French en lieu de, “in place of.”

ménage à trois: literally, “a household of three,” but I don’t imagine much of the housework gets done.

vinaigrette: diminutive form of vinaigre, “sour wine,” which with some shuffling of spelling has come into English as “vinegar.”

This is only to name a few. Lest you think that all French phrases in English will serve you the same in France, though, may I draw your attention to one or two false cognates (in French, faux amis, “false friends,” an evocative idiom indeed.) Risqué, in French, just means “risky,” without the connotation of sexual suggestiveness the word has taken on Stateside. If you want to imply that cheeky sense of danger and seduction, use osé, from oser, “to dare.” An entrée, on a menu, is not the main course but the appetizer (the main course is the plat principal, “principal plate.”) And if all this gets your head spinning, be careful saying that you are confused—it’s very tempting to use the French word confus, which means, instead, “ashamed or embarrassed.”