Language Archives

Language, written and spoken

Des haricots verts

During our visit with Stephanie’s cousins, we got into a discussion about how to pronounce des haricots verts (some green beans).

haricots verts
Haricots Verts by Dominique Sanchez

There’s this thing in French called a liason where the eerily silent letters at the ends of words are resuscitated if the following word begins with a vowel. So for instance les (the, plural) is usually pronounced [lay] but when it’s followed by enfants (children), the “s” reappears and it sounds like [layz] as in [layz-on-fon].

In the case of des haricots verts, or more specifically des haricots, according to the older generation (which includes Stephanie) it is pronounced [day air-e-koh] with a perceptible hiatus after [day], because, well, haricots doesn’t begin with a vowel dammit!—even though the “h” isn’t pronounced. However, the younger generation, innovative whippersnappers that they are, have apparently begun to pronounce it [dayz-air-e-koh], creating a liason between des and haricots, promoting the otherwise silent “s” at the end of des to a loud and proud “z”—and I’m sure causing French parents everywhere no end of angst.

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Separated by a common language

Reading Andrew Purvis’ Running on empty carbs piece in the Guardian brought to light an unusual number of words and phrases in British English that I didn’t know (or would have used a more common American English surrogate for). So I decided to list them out and look them up.

a line – as in “to stand in line”. pretty much everyone knows this one.
raised – as in “their children were raised on Happy Meals”
19 stone
a stone is a unit of mass equal to 14 pounds, thus 19 stone = 266 pounds
Brabantia bin liner
given the context I can only imagine these are upscale garbage bags
refuse truck
a garbage truck (obviously)
this one is my favorite: a compost bin!
Somerfield bags
used in contrast to the Brabantia bin liners, I can only imagine these are down-market garbage bags
council flat
apparently a form of public housing, aka a housing project
Turkey Twizzlers
this was a new one, they are apparently “spiral strips of processed meat are manufactured by the giant Bernard Matthews food company.” think: curly fries made out of meat. awesome!
fizzy drinks
soda (duh)
this one was also completely new to me, apparently it’s like basketball without a backboard
muesli bar
granola bar
already salted, as in “not unsalted” (I think)
furry deposits
creative way of saying fatty deposits
orange squash
a concentrated sugary beverage that one adds water or seltzer to
unpacking, further investigation?

a coincidence across time and space

something like the coincidence i described in my previous post, interpreting signs from fate, happened last week.

at doc searls’ ibiblio talk he summarized some of the things george lakoff says about conservatives’ and liberals’ differing use of the metaphor of family underlying their discourse (apparently conservatives use the strict father model and liberals use the nurturant parent model).

i had recently linked to an article/interview with lakoff about conservative discourse that swept through the blogosphere, i still haven’t read it, but being the blogger that he is, i figured doc searls was garnering most of his information from that recent source.

then this weekend i got a large envelope from my grandmother with clippings, a habit she is well known for. everyone in our family is quite used to getting clippings in christmas cards, birthday cards, etc. sending someone a link via email is essentially our modern day equivalent. she sent it from maine, so i imagine she traveled up there from ohio with several boxes full of papers and magazines to clip, annotate, and lovingly mail to the family (which makes me think about printing this blog post and sending it to her).

i have to imagine there must have been a substantial backlog because in this envelope there were several pages out of a new yorker from october 2000 with a linguistically and politically themed article entitled “the word lab” by nicholas lemann. this article about political speech and focus groups is exceptionally relevant in our current political times, and it’s funny to think that when it was published, i was in the fall semester of my junior year at unc. i’m not even sure if i was officially a linguistics major by that point.

anyway, i read a page or two, then started skimming, then just started flipping pages (there were 7) when my eyes fell upon a paragraph that started,

“A few years ago, Lakoff wrote a book called ‘Moral Politics,’ in which he said that the way to understand the two [political] parties, rhetorically, is through the analogy of the nation to a family.”

interpreting signs from fate

i used to expound on this theory of interpreting signs from fate, especially in terms of social interaction.

it kind of went like this: if someone caught my attention three times, i should interpret that as fate whacking me on the head saying “do something”–like breaking the familiar stranger routine and striking up some kind of conversation.

this also applies to unfamilar words and concepts, except usually it only takes hearing something novel once or twice before i heed fate’s divine intervention and look it up.

this reminds me of a phenomenon which struck me so profoundly when i was younger (perhaps in elementary school) that i remember the following anecdote to this day.

we had learned in school that the word utensil was another word for forks, knives, and spoons. what was extraordinary was my dad using the word utensil that night (or within a few days) and my knowing exactly what he meant, but also realizing that a few days earlier i would have had no idea what he meant. and maybe the word would have passed right over my head like i’d never heard it, because i don’t think i was in the habit of stopping my parents at every unknown word to ask for a definition.

in that moment i had some awareness that i had been unconscious of my ignorance in the past, which suggested that i could possibly be unconscious of my ignorance in the present. or perhaps it was just my first known realization and appreciation of a coincidence. either way, it stuck with me.

Update, 2013-07-27: Apparently people are calling this effect the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

idea about words

i am constantly looking up words online. sometimes just to check the spelling, but often just to make sure the word i’m using in a blog post or email actually means what i think it means. it’s also fun to look up uncommon words other people use that you’ve heard before, and have a sense of, but aren’t familar with the actually definition. here are some words i’ve looked up for various reasons lately:


so i wish there was an automatic way that the words i look up could get posted to my blog in a sidebar that showed the last five or so, with links to their definitions on merriam webster.