10 Myths About The French Language

Etymology: an exact science? Not if you consider the questionable origins of certain words put forward by folk etymology.
Myths about French represented by the Thinker from the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris

Linguistics is a science, though it’s admittedly not always an exact one. But when it comes to etymology, it helps to be precise. Etymology is the study of the meaning and origins of words. So, saying that etymology derives from Ancient Greek is a classic case of etymology. Etymologically, ἐτυμολογία (etumología) is made up of the words ἔτυμος (étumos), meaning “true,” and λόγος (lόgos), meaning “word/speech.” In that sense, etymology is the “true word.” Which is a nice thought, except sometimes the etymology of certain words gets hijacked by urban legends. To separate the true from the false, we looked into 10 myths about French words to see which stories hold up and which don’t.

True Or False: Myths About French Words

Russian soldiers brought the word bistro to France

According to La Mère Catherine, a restaurant on the Place du Tertre in the Montmartre district of Paris, Russian soldiers were the first to introduce the word bistro(t) to the French capital. An old plaque outside the restaurant, installed by the Old Montmartre tourist board (syndicat d’initiative du Vieux Montmartre), seems to agree: “Here, on March 30, 1814, the Cossacks first gave their famous cry of bistro, and thus, atop this hill, our bistrots’ noble ancestor was born.”

But what does this have to do with Russian? After the Battle of Paris in 1814, Russian troops occupied the city, and a curfew was imposed on the soldiers. To make sure they got enough food and drink before the fateful hour, the Cossacks would shout быстро! быстро! (bistro, bistro). In English it means “Quickly! Quickly!” Allegedly, the word stuck as a term for small cafés. A fun story, sure. La Mère Catherine’s date is even accurate enough to be convincing. And yet, it’s all urban legend.

This myth about French is almost certainly false. First, there’s no evidence or reports of Russian soldiers ever did during the Napoleonic times. Second, the word bistro wasn’t really popularized before the end of the 19th century. The first written trace dates back to 1884, in Father Moreau’s Souvenirs de la Roquette. It’s worth mentioning that быстро in Russian is pronounced more or less “bistra” (with an a sound instead of an o). This just sheds more doubt on this particular historical theory. Another idea attributes the word bistro to various regional terms: bistraud, mastroquet (“wine merchant”) or bistroquet (“a wine merchant’s servant”).

The verb baragouiner (“to jabber”) comes from the Breton words for “bread” and “wine”

In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Breton soldiers had trouble making themselves understood. At mealtimes, they would baragouiner (“jabber”) the words…bara and gwin! In Breton, bara means “bread” and gwin, “wine”. Unless they were actually saying bara (“bread”) and gwenn (“white”). Bara gwenn? The idea is that they were simply voicing their surprise to see white bread on the menu. This urban legend has held sway ever since, but it’s far from certain.

Historical evidence suggests false. Montaigne was already using the verb in his Essays three centuries earlier: in Book II, he describes a book “written in a kinde of [baragouiné] Spanish with Latinized endings” (livre basty d’un espagnol baragouiné en terminaisons latines), meaning “bastardized/corrupted” in this context. And fifty years earlier, Rabelais wrote, Mon amy je n’entends point ce barragouyn, et pourtant si voulez qu’on vous entende parlez aultre langaige. (“My friend, I have no skill in that [barragouyn] gibberish of yours; therefore, if you would have us to understand you, speak to us in some other language.”)

For a word that already meant “to express roughly, incomprehensibly,” its origins remain an enigma. Perhaps it relates to the word barbare (“barbarian”), from Ancient Greek, in reference to non-Greek foreigners? The mystery continues.

A macédoine salad gets its name from the region of Macedonia

This one is kind of true, but not for the reason you might think. This dish is not a specialty of the recently renamed nation of North Macedonia. Here, we’re talking about Alexander the Great’s Macedonia: a multiethnic empire made of many different peoples. Just like a macédoine salad is made up of different vegetables. The dish is sometimes called a “Russian salad,” another cultural and ethnic label for cooking terms.

The word bougie (“candle”) comes from Algeria

This myth about French is true! The city of Béjaïa in northern Algeria has been known since the Middle Ages for the quality of its wax. Given its use in the production of candles, this wax became so popular in Europe that the word bougie (“candle”) takes its name from it. We can ignore the false etymology that links bougie to the verb bouger (“to move”) in reference to the flickering flame.

Béjaïa joins the long list of geographical locations that have lent their name to an everyday word. There’s also the town of Gruyères in the Emmental region of Switzerland, and “blue jeans” derives from “Genoa blue” (blu di Genova in Italian). Relatedly, Nîmes’s famous fabric gave us “denim.” And do bouchons de liège (corks) really come from Liège? Well, that one’s false. They’re simply made out of cork oak (chêne-liège in French).

A fainéant (“good-for-nothing”) is so called because they fait néant (do nothing)

No, this one isn’t quite correct. This is a corruption of the word feignant (“lazy”), which you still hear in certain pronunciations. So a fainéant is someone who “feigns,” or pretends to get away with not doing something else. In contrast, farniente in Italian does derive from far niente (“do nothing”).

The word forcené (“fanatic”) comes from force

No, this is false. A forcené is someone who forces their enthusiasm on others. Hence, the word. Forcené used to be spelt forsené, made up of two Latin roots: fors (“outside”) and sensus (“sense”). A forcené can behave violently, true, but it’s mainly someone who acts “out of sense” or beyond reason.

The word péage (“tollbooth”) has nothing to do with the verb payer (“to pay”)

This one seems straightforward enough you might not guess it’s a myth about French, but the connection is false. In medieval Latin, pedaticum was a toll levied by the nobility to “place the foot”; this was charged to travelers crossing a road, a bridge, or a river on foot. The word evolved into péage in modern French, so there’s no link to the verb payer.

Quel bec ! (“Behold the cape!”) is the origin of Quebec

No, the region of Quebec is not named after a cape. “Quel bec !” Jacques Cartier’s crew reportedly proclaimed as they approached New France from the tip of the Île d’Orléans. In the early 18th century, historian Bacqueville de la Potherie claimed that the province of Quebec took its name from this cry. In fact, “Quebec” is a Frenchification of kebec, a word from the indigenous Algonquin language, which means “strait, narrow passage.”

The word mail (e-mail) is an anglicism 

If you don’t know French, we should point out that “mail” is not traditionally an English word. It’s a classic example of an English loanword being used in French. But not so fast! The word mail, an abbreviation of “e-mail,” has a little-known French origin. The postal meaning of “mail” in English derives from the old French word male. In the 12th century, this referred to a leather bag used to transport mail in. Still, English is likely the reason the word came back into vogue in French.

The word snob was born in Oxford

The story goes that students at Oxford University from non-aristocratic backgrounds were forced to add sine nobilitate (without nobility) alongside their names. A Latin term that was abbreviated to s.nob. Though this didn’t stop them adopting the same social codes as their high-society classmates. Hence, a snobby attitude.

A tempting story, but it isn’t true. This myth about French is a great example of a backronym, where a word’s origin is falsely attributed to an abbreviation or acronym. Another example is people who claim “golf” was originally an acronym for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.”

Bonus: Where Does OK Come From?

While we’ve mostly covered myths about French words specifically, the word “OK” stretches across languages. Just two little letters and yet probably the word that has the most proposed folk etymologies.

  • Businessman Otto Kaiser added his initials “OK” to each shipment before being sent out after he’d carried out quality checks.
  • “0K” is an annotation used by British sailors to indicate 0 killed, and it later evolved into “OK.”
  • Όλα Καλά (Ola Kala) means “all’s well” in modern Greek, later popularized by Greek laborers in the United States.
  • “Okay” comes from the French Au quai ! (Onto the dock!), a cry heard on the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana to mark the cotton bales good enough to go ashore.

Today, the most accepted etymology is that it was a shortening of the phrase “orl korrect,” which was a humorous misspelling of “all correct” that caught on in the 1840s. Yet as is so often the case with urban legends, everyone has their own opinion!

This article was originally published on the French edition of Babbel Magazine.

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