7 English words you may not know are really French
The international distress call used by ships and aircraft instead of SOS since 1923 is ‘Mayday.’ ‘Mayday!’ from the French M’aidez! ‘Help me!’ has surely never been more relevant than in this month of May, when so many of us feel we are not waving but drowning, if not in the Mediterranean, in the turbulent seas of politics somewhere off the coast of Calais. But politics aside, Mayday is an example of what happens when a word is borrowed from one language to another. Linguistic fusion or distortion often occurs, for as many have remarked, you would normally expect the cry to be Aidez-moi! or more authentically Au secours! as m’aidez does not exist in modern French.
This is the comical English pronunciation of the French adverb tout de suite meaning ‘straight away’, or ‘directly.’ The first usage seems to be in 1830 in a book by C. Selby with the title: A Day in Paris (‘ Wyndham: “Give me my coat and hat”. Sam: “Yes sir, tout sweet – directly.”’) And the most recent in 2001 in If looks could kill by M. Blair (‘Boss you’d better get home toot sweet.’) Toot sweet and its hilarious comparative ‘the tooter the sweeter’ gained in currency in and around the time of WWI when it was commonly used by British soldiers. It’s a typical example of the gradual assimilation of a phrase into another language over time, initially appearing in a French cultural context and then being used in a foreign and more general one.
This quaint expression ‘to make the gardyloo’ refers to the habit of throwing dirty water from washbasins and chamber-pots from the window into the street. It was the cry to warn people of the impending cascade. It comes from the French Gare de l’eau or Gare! De l’eau! ‘Be careful, water!’ Sterne and Smollett use the expression in 1768 and 1771 and Scott in The Heart of Midlothian in 1818.
San Fairy Ann
Many people in 2017 may not know this expression, variously spelled and often shortened to Fairy Ann, which was current in the twentieth century till the sixties, and in common parlance in the generation before that. It is an expression of indifference to and resigned acceptance of a state of things and comes from the French ça ne fait rien (it does not matter).The most recent use seems to be in 1973 in an advert in The Times: ‘San Fairy Ann – it doesn’t matter to us… whether it is fixed wing or helicopter because we sell the best of both.’
Mortgages are on everyone’s minds in our present society, and the word means literally ‘death pledge’ or ‘dead pledge’ describing the pledge that you give to pay back borrowed money in the future. Land or property may become ‘dead’ if the debt is not honoured. It comes from Norman French and the first usage in English was in the fourteenth century, while the modern word for mortgage in French – hypothèque – is of Greek origin.It sometimes happens, oddly, that an original word, like dandelion (from the middle French dent-de-lion, lion’s teeth), is no longer used so frequently in modern French and gets replaced, as here, by a strikingly different vernacular word: pissenlit (piss-the-bed) has been current form of dandelion since the fifteenth century.
Curfew comes into English in the thirteenth century, from the French Couvrefeu (cover fire). The curfew (various spellings) was a regulation in force across medieval Europe by which at a fixed hour in the evening indicated by the ringing of a bell, fires had to be covered over or extinguished. In its usual sense in English, which has been used since the late nineteenth century, it means the time after which you are not allowed to be out on the streets.
Denim is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a contraction of serge de Nîmes or serge de nim. This was a hard-wearing cloth made in Nîmes in the south of France in the seventeenth century. Or was it? Serge de Nîmes was originally made of silk and wool, so the provenance of the word is still debated. The word ‘jean’ comes from the French word, Gênes, (Genoa) in Italy, where this finer cloth was originally made.These seven examples are among the lesser-known borrowings, but perhaps none will have surprised you since a whopping 45% of English words have their origin in French words, mostly from Latin, via Anglo-Norman!