Copernique Marshall's Essays


No. 031 to 040

(From March 25 to August 5, 2013)

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040 - 2013-08-05 - A few words on... words (and expressions)

I nearly choked on my coffee the other day after having heard a friend of mine jokingly saying, about a man sitting at the other end of the restaurant we were in, that he was a "Big vegetable" ("Une grosse légume" !). I had heard the expression before (the French version), of course, but translated that way, never. - I subsequently looked it up in various dictionaries, but couldn't find where it came from except some vague remark that a "légume" was, at one point, a man of some importance. It's correct translation, in English, would be, of course, "a big wig". Now that I know where it comes from : an admiral of the British fleet who lived from 1650 to 1707 and who designed those "big wigs" - actually called "Shovell wigs" (derived from his name) - one can see on English "big vegetables" in countless paintings of that period.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell
creator of the "Shovell wig"
(Who drowned, by the way, in a disastrous shipwreck in the
Island of Scilly, near the Britsh coast, along with 1,400 sailors...)

They were, these wigs, apparently so expensive to buy and maintain that their rich owners were called "big wigs" which lead me to think that languages are consequences of both circumstances and highly subject to variations from one country to another ; even sections of countries to other sections.

Take the word "formidable", for example.  Originally, in French (Littré, Larousse, etc.), it meant : "Causing fear or dread, difficult to defeat or overcome" (from the Latin "formidabilis" or "terrible", i. e. : "qui est à craindre"). Less used in English, it slowly, turned into something that had to do with greatness, grandeur and what-have-you, with the result that, nowadays, it sort of means, in both languages, "extraordinary or impressive" (by its strentht, power or even talent). But look it up in an old dictionary, you'll see. In more modern dictionaries, I found : "knockout, magnificent, incredible, showstopping, terrific, exciting, smashing, splendid...", a far cry from its original meaning used by Corneille in his boring Attila. - Can't argue with Corneille, can we  ?

When it rains like it's never gonna stop, English speaking people say that "It's raining cats and dogs." - Various sources tell us that this expression have its roots in Norse mythology or medieval superstitions, derived from the obsolete word catadupe (waterfall) which was used to describe dead animals in the streets of Britain being picked up by storm waters. - In French, the expression used is "Il pleut des hallebardes" ("It's raining halberds" [a two-handed pole weapon]). A bit less colorful, don't you think ? - Best I've heard, thus far, is its French-Canadian version : "Il pleut à boire debout." ("It rains so much that one can drink standing up", which, ironically, Google translates by "It's raining cats and dogs".

I had some argument, not too long ago, when I referred to a sad story and said it was "pathetic". I meant, of course : "upsetting, heartbreaking, dramatic..." but the young lady I was with heard it in the sarcastic modern version which is more along the line of "unimportant", "boring", practically "hilarious"... - We finally came up with an agreement.

I heard the other day that the same sort of confusion applies to sounds and even facial expressions ; that a baby, for example, will learn how to repeat the pronunciation of his parents and only that, which explains accents and the difficulty he will have, past a certain age, to pronouce the dreadful English "th" if he was born in France or the equally difficult French "eu" if he was born in England. - Try to teach how "r"'s, should be pronounced by a man born in India or anywhere in Asia for that matter. And if you never heard the South African "click", you're in for a surprise. Oh, might be able to repeat it but use it in the middle of a word ? Never.

As to facial expressions, apparently we learn to mimic our parents very early in life in order to make sure they take care of us, which is why, a small boy might look like his "father" even though the man he's looking might not be his real father... And if you were born in a banker's family, you might become a banker yourself. - Like father, like son.... -  I know an exception : a slime-picker-upper (dredger), near Québec, whose sons became : an accountant, a doctor and a notary. His daughter married a politician, however, following, in a way, his slime-picking trade.

And then there's the Montagnais, a Indian tribe on the North shore of the St-Lawrence River, in Québec, who have different ways of stating facts by using different words or pronunciations : one for "I saw it myself", another for "«I heard it from reliable sources". Another for "It was said recently that..." and so on. Or the Inuits who have 32 (or is it 36 ?) words to describe snow...

My friend ? The one who said : "big vegetable" ? Is a serious (I mean "real", "genuine") "boute-en-train" ("a teaser, the life of the party, a fellow with a great sense of humour"), definitely not the "end of a train".

"Boute-en-train", by the way, originally applied to a horse that was brought near a mare to see if she was ready to mate. If she responded joyously, she was. Things don't really change, do they ?

BTW : A great free expression translator (French-English or vice versa) on the web ? -

Have a good week.



039 - 2013-07-22 - On reading

Funny how things get you thinking about something else and another thing and then another.

First, let me start by saying this :

I get pretty annoyed when someone suggests that I read this or that book or see this or that film. I'm not like Serge, that Aspie friend of Jeff [Bollinger], but I do read books and watch films, I think, quite differently than most people : stories don't interest me, I read how they are told, written or filmed. Ever heard a mystery novel reader who regularly skip the last chapters not having the slightest interest in whodunit but who read every word of the previous chapters to see how the story was built ? - Well you just heard about one : me. Get it ?

Lately, I've been struggling along Virgina Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway whose title was suggested by a good friend of mine (haven't heard of her in a while except that she might be in dire straits but won't talk about it) when another good friend of mine (I seem to have too many girlfriends, my wife says) told me that I should read Les vaisseaux du coeur, a novel written by Benoîte Groult in 1988.

I found it quite boring at first but having exchanged it for two books written by the Brontë sisters (you want me to read something of yours ? you'll have to read something of mine), I paid my dues and read it from one end to the other (so to speak). - I couldn't understand, at first, why, of all the people I know, she had loaned me this sordid lifelong love story between a male named Gauvin and a female named George (sic) who lived their life separately but made love every time they meet each other (and boy, did they !). Was it a message that she (my friend) wanted to convey ? - I didn't follow that line of thought for, let us say, personal reasons.

Then followed a second book.

I mentioned it two weeks ago : Homer's Odyssey by Gwenn Cooper. Now, that one I liked very much and read it very slowly. It revolves around a blind cat adopted by the author (a real life story). Very well written, extremely interesting (I mean : structurally-wise, style and all, with, maybe, one bad chapter but one can skip it without loosing the essence of it all).

And then I got it :

In my copy of Les vaisseaux du coeur, my friend had written : " […] You have now, another part of me in your mind and soul ! […]".

My friend had not given me stories to read but part of her. She had given me the most precious thing one can give to another : oneself. And I must admit that it touched me deeply

The problem now is I'd like to do the same but I just can't find a book with which I can identify myself. Oh I could always tell her to read this or that but I'd have to sit down with her and tell her : "This is what I read, This is what I understood when I read this part. This is what I saw in this description." In a nutshell, I'd have to explain my madness consisting in looking for clever things and new thoughts but that would be painful wouldn't it ?

I explained that to her in a long letter ('cuz we don't see each other often), one of the most difficult I had to write in years, and then she replied with an unexpected and rather surprising reply :

"Don't worry about it : I read "Le Castor™" every time it comes out.", she said.

"All of it ?"

"All of it !"

Isn't that precious ?

Have a good week.



038 - 2013-07-08 - And all that jazz... (Addendum)

See : Jazz plus :

And another thing to which I would like to draw your attention (1) :

A book that was, when it came out, on the New York Times Bestseller list, for several weeks, which, of course, I missed at the time but was lent to me a couple of weeks ago and which I am reading very slowly. It's about a blind cat.

Very well written. I mean : excellent prose. Very entertaining. - See "Le mot de la fin" (Quote of the day) at the end.

If you have or like cats, you have to read this :

Have a nice week.


(1) Le mot de la fin :

"Quand nous voyons quelque chose d'infiniment précieux chez quelqu'un, nous ne pensons plus aux raisons - mauvais moment, situation financière difficile - qui pourraient nous empêcher de le faire entrer dans notre vie. Nous nous permettons d'être suffisamment forts pour construire notre vie de ça."

- Gwen Cooper

(Traduction de Jocelyne Barsse du texte précédent :)

"When you think you see something so fundamentally worthwhile in someone else, you don't look for the reasons - like bad timimg or a negative bank balance - that might keep it out of your life. You commit to being strong enough to build your life around it, no matter what."

(Homer's Odyssey)


037 - 2013-06-10 - And all that jazz... Part Three
036 - 2013-06-03 - And all that jazz... Part Two
035 - 2013-05-20 - And all that jazz... Part one

See : Jazz.

034 - 2013-05-06 - Classical Music - Part Three
033 - 2013-04-22 - Classical Music - Part Two
032 - 2013-04-08 - Classical Music - Part One

See : Classical Music.

031 - 2013-03-25 - Rock n' Roll ! (Why not ?)

See : Rock n' Roll.



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