A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, usually known by its nickname, the Quai d'Orsay. Picture source: this blog, which has a nice post about the building. http://davidplusworld.com/french-ministry-foreign-affairs/
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, usually known by its nickname, the Quai d’Orsay. Picture source: this blog, which has a nice post about the building. http://davidplusworld.com/french-ministry-foreign-affairs/

It’s the political season in many parts of the world.  Lots of Europe is having elections, and the presidential campaign is well along in the United States.  Last night there was a debate amongst the contenders for the nomination for Republican presidential candidate.  Jeb Bush attacked his erstwhile protege, and now opponent, Marco Rubio over his attendance record in the Senate, saying “The Senate, what is it like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?””  Hearing this, I was struck by the difference between “in theory” and “in practice” that is ever-present in France.  In theory, France has a 35-hour work-week (versus 40 hours in the US).  In practice, only about 50% of the French working population qualifies for the restriction.  The lab where I work when I’m in France qualifies for the 35-hour week in theory, but in practice, they have a 37.5 hour work-week, the idea being that they get more holidays than most people, so it balances out.  37.5 hours in theory, mind you–in practice, I frequently get responses to emails at midnight.

With politics being a hot topic in the French news right now, we need some new vocabulary if we’re going to be able to listen to the news on the way to work in the morning.  A word that’s been coming up quite a bit lately is politique.  It has a number of meanings:

  • politique: as an adjective, it means “political.”
  • la politique: politics, but also policy, which is actually the sense that I’ve been hearing the most on the news.  Politique extérieure: foreign policy.
  • le politique: politician.

You probably noticed that this is one of those nouns that has different meanings depending on whether it’s masculine or feminine.  Masculine: a politician.  Feminine: politics or policy.

Putting together this blog post on the word politique, I was reminded of the “politic worms” of Hamlet:

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Act 4, Scene 3.)

The Shakespeare Navigators web site translates politic here as “crafty, prying.”  I don’t know whether or not that pejorative meaning is intended–the Oxford English Dictionary says that during the same period, it could also mean “prudent, shrewd, sagacious.”  Given Hamlet’s overall affect in that scene, I guess that the pejorative interpretation is probably justified.  In any case: a great image to keep in mind as you listen to the political news these days.

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