Police, anarchists, and windows

Police demonstrating in Paris, October 14, 2015. Photo by Michel Euler. Photo source: https://sg.news.yahoo.com/photos/thousand-french-police-officers-gathering-next-french-justice-photo-111136198.html.
Police demonstrating in Paris, October 14, 2015. Photo by Michel Euler. Photo source: https://sg.news.yahoo.com/photos/thousand-french-police-officers-gathering-next-french-justice-photo-111136198.html.

Police in France are pissed.  In France, pretty much any group can and will demonstrate and/or go on strike.  Manifestation (“demonstration”) is a word that you learn in French 101–it’s not typically a 101-level vocabulary item, but it’s so totally culturally relevant in France that you really need to know it.

The police are generally an exception to the French tendency to demonstrate–in fact, they haven’t done so in 30 years.  All of that changed this week, when thousands of French police officers demonstrated in cities all  over France.  They are protesting a lack of resources, as well as a general laxness in the criminal justice system, the latter complaint having been stimulated by the murder of a police officer by a criminal on leave from jail.

Policing in France, especially in Paris, is interesting.  As Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow explain in their book 60 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong, French mayors generally have control of the local police force in their town.  Paris is the exception to this.  Rather than being policed by a local force, Paris is protected by the National Police.  (Look at the shoulder patches of every policeman you see in Paris the next time you’re there–you’ll see.)  Nadeau and Barlow explain that this is because France doesn’t trust Paris with a police force of its own, for fear that the city will rebel.  I couldn’t understand why people would think this was a possibility until recently, when I read about the Paris Commune of 1871 in Graham Robb’s Parisians: An adventure history.  The Commune was an anarchist revolutionary government under which Paris briefly broke off from the rest of France after basically having been abandoned in the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War.  The army crushed the Parisian populace in a brutal assault known as la semaine sanglante (“the bloody week”).

The National Police themselves have an interesting and somewhat bizarre history, having been founded by Eugène François Vidocq, a career criminal who became a law officer and later started the world’s first private detective agency.  (He may also have faked the storming of a barricade during the Commune–see above.)  But, we’ll save that for another time.

  • défiler sous les fenêtre de quelqu’un: No exact translation.  It means something like to protest in front of someone.  Literally, it’s “to parade under the windows of someone.”  The police have been défiler sous les fenêtres’ing the Ministry of Justice.

Labiodentals: lips and teeth

Picture source: http://www2.gsu.edu/~eslsal/phoncon.htm.
Picture source: http://www2.gsu.edu/~eslsal/phoncon.htm.

In hopes of getting me able to pass the DALF, we’ve been looking at verbs whose infinitive ends with IR.  We’ve looked at regular IR verbs, like finir.
We’ve looked at irregular verbs like courir, dormir, partir, sentir, and sortir:

finir courir dormir partir sortir
je finis cours dors pars sors
tu finis cours dors pars sors
on finit court dort part sort
nous finissons courons dormons partons sors
vous finissez courez dormez partez sortez
ils/elles finissent courent dorment partent sortent

Now let’s look at yet another set of irregular IR verbs. This time, we’re going to figure out a way to remember which verbs belong to this class:

ouvrir couvrir offrir souffrir
je ouvre couvre offre souffre
tu ouvres couvres offres souffres
on ouvre couvre offre souffre
nous ouvrons couvrons offrons souffrons
vous ouvrez couvrez offrez souffrez
ils/elles ouvrent couvrent offrent souffrent

First, what’s unusual about this class?  It’s the endings–they are the same as for ER verbs, which the IR verb endings usually differ from quite a bit.

Now, how can we remember these?  It turns out that finding patterns in this kind of data is what linguists do all day.  Here, the pattern appears to be related to the consonantal structure of the verb roots.  To understand what’s going on, you need to know a few things about the sounds of language.

  1. To simplify quite a bit: speech sounds are produced by making air leave the lungs through the mouth.  Look in the mirror while you make the sound ah.  Close your mouth and try to make the sound ah.  Doesn’t work.
  2. Consonants are made by obstructing the flow of air through the mouth.  Look in the mirror while you say bah-bah-bah.  See how the flow of air is obstructed completely when you make the sound that we represent with the letter b?
  3. Different consonants are made by obstructing the flow of air at different places.  Look in the mirror while you make the sounds bah and kah.  Does your mouth look the same, or different?

Now that you have some of the basics of how consonants work, let’s look at the sounds in the roots of these verbs.  You notice that (1) there is a cluster of consonants (i.e., more than one); the second consonant is r; and the first consonant is one of f or v.  Look in the mirror while you make the sounds fah and vah.  You’ll notice that the obstruction for these consonants is made with the lips and teeth.  (We’ll talk about how you differ between the f and the v some other time.)  Consonants that are produced with an obstruction made by the lips and teeth (actually, just one lip) are called labiodental consonants, or labiodentals. 

It turns out that French has exactly two labiodentals: the sound that we usually spell with the letter f, and the sound that we usually spell with the letter v.  (In the languages of the world, there are two other labiodental consonants.  We don’t have a way to spell them in English, but you probably have one of them–the labiodental nasal–in the English word emphasis.)  So, we can say that you see this particular pattern of verb endings when a verb has a consonant cluster in the middle, the first consonant is a labiodental, and the second consonant is r. 

I know of three verbs that don’t have the labiodental-r root but that do have this pattern in the present indicative.  However, they behave differently from the others with respect to their past participles.  Those verbs are cueillir (to pick, to gather), acceuillir (to receive, to greet), and recueillir (to collect, to gather).  The present indicative is like the labiodental-r verbs that we’ve seen.

However, the past participle of these verbs is different from the labiodental-r verbs: couvert versus ceuilli.  There are also a couple of verbs that have -aillir in the stem that have the same present tense pattern, maybe–one of my Bescherelles has a note about how even famous writers sometimes don’t follow this pattern for those verbs.

So, with a little bit of linguistics, you don’t have to memorize the fact that it’s verbs with fr and vr in the root that have this conjugation–all you have to do is remember that it’s verbs with a consonant cluster in the root where the first consonant in the cluster is a labiodental.  Fun, huh?

Pubmed.mineR: text mining from the biomedical literature with the R programming language

Update, 1 March 2016: pubmed.mineR has recently been updated a couple times.  Since the most recent update (1.0.5), the old API works again, so the code on this page will work.  However, I have not been able to reproduce the (wonderful) results that I had before the recent updates to pubmed.mineR.  Use with caution.

Something a bit different today: a little manual for using a package for the R programming language for text mining.

Pubmed.mineR is a “library” for doing text mining from the PubMed/MEDLINE collection of documents.  PubMed/MEDLINE contains references to about 23 million articles in the domain of biomedical science, broadly construed.  It was released with documentation for the various and sundry methods that it provides, but no manual.  This blog post is an attempt to put together a basic manual for using it, with some code examples.  Pubmed.mineR was written by Jyoti Rani, Ab Rauf Shah, and Srinivasan Ramachandran.  You can find an article about it here, and some documentation here.

First, you need to have the input data in the right format.  Here’s a screenshot from one of the authors, Ramachandran, showing how to do a manual query and then save the results in the proper format:

Downloading PubMed/MEDLINE abstracts in a format the Pubmed.mineR can deal with. Photo source: Ramachandran.
Downloading PubMed/MEDLINE abstracts in a format the Pubmed.mineR can deal with. Photo source: Ramachandran.

Here is some sample R code for the library:

# import the library

# read in the abstracts
abstracts <- readabs(“pubmed_result.txt”)

abstracts is an object of type S4.  This is a kind of class used for doing object-oriented programming in R.  abstract is printable with print(abstracts).  An S4 object stores its data in slots.  To understand slots in R, try this web page: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/4713968/r-what-are-slots.

The abstracts class has the following slots:

  • Journal: This returns a vector of the names of the journals for each publication in the whole collection.
  • Abstract: This returns a vector of the abstracts for the whole collection.
  • PMID: This returns a vector of the PMIDs for the whole collection.

(It’s worth noting that the elements of some of these vectors have some oddities.  For example, when you get the vector of titles, you’ll notice that each one is prefaced with the number of the element of the vector.  I suggest looking at these outputs closely, as I’m sure that I haven’t picked up on all of these oddities.)

So, this line of code will get you a vector of the PMIDs (some columns trimmed from the output for readability):

Screenshot 2015-10-19 09.54.40

Once we’ve got a PMID for an abstract, one thing that we can do with it is send it to PubTator.  Once we can do that, we can get access to lists of the genes, mutations, diseases, and chemicals that are mentioned in the abstract.  (Some columns of output omitted for readability.)

Screenshot 2015-10-19 09.31.47

These lines of code will get you access to the rest of the stuff in the PubTator results:


It’s pretty common to want to iterate over all of the sentences in an abstract.  You can do that by getting a vector of the sentences with the SentenceToken() method.  It has to be passed a character string, so you’ll want to pass it an element of the vector of abstract bodies that you get from abstracts@Abstract:

Screenshot 2015-10-19 10.06.35

A question that immediately arises is whether you can pass individual sentences to the PubTator function. I haven’t had good luck with that–it always seems to return “No data.” So, I guess that I would try running pubtator_function() on the whole abstract, and then search individual sentences for the things that pubtator_function() returns with a regular expression or substring function or something.

This doesn’t exhaust everything that you can do with pubmed.mineR, but it should be enough to get you started. Good luck, and if you figure out how to do something cool with it that I haven’t talked about, please tell us in the comments!

Postmodernism, Burkina Faso, and dissolving stuff

"Can Coke dissolve things?"  Picture source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68lhTEFp3qw
“Can Coke dissolve things?” Picture source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68lhTEFp3qw

It’s sort of a postmodern cliché that the media exerts tremendous influence over what, and how, we think.  I didn’t take this seriously until I was in Paris last summer.  We went through a period of pretty serious anti-Semitic violence–a synagogue was attacked by a mob during services, Jewish businesses were bombed, cars in a Jewish neighborhood were set afire.  A young woman was raped.  This was reported on my favorite American news channel as follows: “There was unrest in Paris yesterday.”  Really?!  To my astonishment, the most reliable source of news about what was going on turned out to be Twitter.

I thought again about how different media have different takes on what is newsworthy during the recent coup in Burkina Faso.  There wasn’t much news coverage of it in the United States, but it was covered quite heavily in the French media.  In fact, Radio France International’s podcast about French words used it to establish the context for a discussion of the word dissoudre, “to dissolve,” as in the rebels dissolving the government.

Dissoudre turns out to fit nicely into our recent discussions of verb conjugations.  In general, verbs ending with -re tend to be at least somewhat irregular.  In that way, dissoudre is a doozy.  Let’s look at the present tense:

je dissous nous dissolvons
tu dissous vous dissolvez
il/elle/on dissout ils/elles dissolvent

Where does the LV come from? Where does it go? The mysteries of morphology. Here are some verbs that are conjugated like dissoudre.  These might be the only three that follow this pattern; they share other oddities, including irregular past participles and possibly not having passé simple or imperfect subjunctive forms.

  • absoudre: to absolve.
  • résoudre: to solve, resolve.

A magot is not a maggot

Simone de Beauvoir in an unnamed cafe. Photo source: http://fuckyeahexistentialism.tumblr.com/post/3736286827/simone-de-beauvoir-says-celebrate-international.
Simone de Beauvoir in an unnamed cafe. Photo source: http://fuckyeahexistentialism.tumblr.com/post/3736286827/simone-de-beauvoir-says-celebrate-international.

I’ve always been attracted to depth over breadth.  Visiting a new city, I might eat in the same restaurant every night, trying to explore the entire menu.  Discovering a new bookstore, I’m unlikely to only visit the sections that I’m interested in and know that I’ll buy from, but very likely to walk around the entire store, seeing what it’s strong in (in Denver, the former Borders in Northglenn for judo, the Tattered Cover for history, Barnes and Noble for obscure French books; in Paris, Gibert Jeune for theoretical semantics, Attika for bilingual French/English novels, and Gibert Joseph for cheese, kids’ books, and general linguistics).  This makes me a super-boring person to visit a new city–or a new bookstore–with, but I love the feeling of knowing a place deeply, and prefer it to knowing lots of places more shallowly.

I’d always been interested in an in-depth exploration of the cafes of Paris, but had trouble finding a good, and preferably literary, guide to them.  Then today I read a chapter in John Baxter’s Five nights in Paris: After dark in the City of Lights on just that topic.  Baxter starts by debunking the myth that Parisian writers work in cafes.  He says that Hemingway was the last writer of importance to actually write in cafes in Paris.  He also, however, quotes a friend as saying that only one of her writer friends still writes in a Parisian cafe.  There’s a clear inference from this: writing in Paris cafes has certainly been popular, and people still do it.  I will even confess to having spent a pleasant afternoon or two sitting on the terrasse of a Paris cafe working on a (not very interesting, unfortunately) book myself.  He lists a number of cafes frequented by writers, musicians, or other folks of interest; I’ll round it out a bit with material from Graham Robb’s Parisians: An adventure history of Paris.

  • Cafe Procope: I’ve heard different stories as to whether this was the first cafe in Paris, or the first successful cafe in Paris.  Graham Robb describes the original offerings: coffee and sherberts.  Habitués over the years have included Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, Thomas Jefferson, and Léon Gambetta.  6th arrondissement, which I think is not its original location, but I haven’t been able to verify that.
  • Les Deux Magots: one of the most famous cafes in Paris.  It was opened in 1885 in the former location of a silk store.  According to the Paris-Bistro.com web site, the name comes from the two magot, or seated Oriental figurines, that are mounted on the wall and are the last vestiges of the silk shop.  Expect to pay about double the cost of a coffee or beer anywhere else in town for the privilege of hanging out in the same place as Rimbaud, Mallarmé, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Bertolt Brecht, once did (list from Wikipedia and the Paris-Bistro.com web site).  I was really surprised at how small it was on the inside–it’s easy to imagine the air choking with cigarette smoke and the smell of espresso.  6th arrondissement.
  • Cafe Flore: right up there with Les Deux Magots in the fame department, and still popular.  Like Les Deux Magots, it was built in the 1880s.  Habitués have included Pablo Picasso and Zhou EnlaiAdam Gopnik‘s essay A tale of two cafes (reprinted in his Paris to the Moon, which I can’t recommend highly enough–my favorite book about Paris) contains a variety of wildly speculative explanations for why Les Deux Magots stopped being the cool place to be while the Flore remained popular; all or none of them may be true.  6th arrondissement.
  • Cafe Beaubourg: Edmund White hung out here.  As Baxter relates, and White himself says in his memoir Inside a Pearl: My years in Paris, part of the attraction was walking by the air intake of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique afterwards, so that his dog could poop in it–a dispute over being refused an interview.  4th arrondissement, in the Marais.
  • La Closerie des Lilas: Hemingway liked to write here.  Other habitués have included Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide, Paul Éluard, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Ezra Pound (list from French Wikipedia page).  6th arrondissement.
  • Café Fleurus:  I haven’t been able to find much in the way of information about this one, but it appears that Gertrude Stein lived right up the street, at 27 rue de Fleurus.  14th arrondissement.
  • Wepler: This was a favorite of Henry Miller.  The character Joey in Miller’s book Quiet Days in Clichy has a relationship with a prostitute that he meets there.  18th arrondissement.
  • Tournon: This was a favorite of post-war African-American expats in Paris, as well as the early male-female transsexual April Ashley.  6th arrondissement.

As Baxter points out, these days Paris cafes are about food as least as much as coffee, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating at any of these.  A number of the cafes that I’ve listed are in the 6th arrondissement.  If a cafe tour takes you there, I would recommend that you eat at Au Pied de Fouet.  This is an island of affordable meals in the midst of a sea of super-overpriced places, and the food is some of my favorite stuff in Paris, particularly for French stuff (yes, Paris has a bazillion great restaurants serving things other than French food).

For a Zipf’s Law connection, let’s look at the vocabulary items that appear in some of the cafe names:

Do you have a cafe to add to my list?  How about mentioning it in the Comments?  I’ve focused here on cafes with some literary history; you can find a list of other cafes here.  Some of them look pretty interesting.

Zipf’s Law in the context of getting screamed at by a taxi driver

In which I get screamed at by a taxi driver, and then have oatmeal.

There’s something about Zipf’s Law–the property of language that about 50% of the words that you run into are quite rare, statistically, and yet they do occur–that seems quite random when you’re face to face with it. However, it’s just as context-dependent as anything else linguistic. So, getting up at 3 AM to catch a plane exposed me to lots of new words, as you would expect–but, as you can see from the list below, they mostly do go together, in some sense, at least from the second word in the list on.  Here are the words that I had learnt before breakfast:

  • illégal: illegal, banned, outlawed, criminal.  You would’ve thought that I would’ve heard this word before this, and certainly I’ve come across interdit and défense (de).  However, I don’t recall ever coming across illégal until 4 AM today, when I was standing in front of the hotel in Montréal with a suitcase, a taxi driver came by, I shook my head “no,” and he pulled over, rolled down his window, and screamed UberX is banned! at me repeatedly.
  • le gruau: in theory, “gruel.”  In practice, “oatmeal.”  I’m looking forward to a bowl of gruau while I wait for my plane.
  • érable (nm): maple.  Where there is gruau, there always seems to be sirop d’érable (maple syrup).  
  • la garniture: side dish.  Way more meanings than you would think, actually.  In this case, roughly equivalent to “condiments.”  That might be a Canadian usage, though–not sure.
  • la cassonade: brown sugar.  Wondering about the etymology of the word, I looked it up on the French Wikipedia, and learnt that it refers to a different kind of brown sugar in the north of France and in Belgium than elsewhere.  Who knew that brown sugar was so complicated?
  • la canneberge: cranberry.  Cranberry production is mostly a North American thing, so it’s not shocking that I would have come across this word in Canada, but not in France.

That’s a lot of words to learn before sunrise, though, so I’m going to eat my gruau and make another cup of coffee now–flight boards in 15 minutes…

Funny, you don’t look like a mechanic: the mysterious art of identifying language preference

Picture source: thejumpingfrog.com.
Picture source: thejumpingfrog.com.

There’s something about the French-speaking parts of Canada that has always amazed me.  In any French Canadian city that I’ve been in, there’s always a substantial English-speaking minority.  If you watch a cashier with a line of people in front of them, you’ll see the following.  As each person gets up to the cash register, the cashier looks at them for a split second, and then greets them–either in French, or in English.  The customer will almost always answer them in the same language.  I can’t begin to imagine how they know which one to use.  I asked my cousin about it the other day.  She grew up here, and works in customer service.  She says that she has no idea how she does it, but that she almost never gets it wrong–she can tell which language you speak by looking at you.  (Like a typical Québécoise immigrant of her generation, she speaks three languages–in her case, Italian, English, and French.)  If you have any insight into how this works, perhaps you could tell us in the Comments section?

A Quebecois convenience store. Picture source: http://www.promenadeshm.ca/fr/commerces/c/depanneur.
A Quebecois convenience store. Picture source: http://www.promenadeshm.ca/fr/commerces/c/depanneur.

There are countless books about the French language of Quebec–I saw several in every bookstore that I went into in this city.  Stereotypical Quebequisms abound, but the one that struck me as most salient doesn’t show up in any of the obvious places, like on T-shirts.  You might remember the word le dépanneur from a previous post (it showed up in an incredibly stupid French movie that I watched).  Normally, it means a mechanic.  In Quebec, however, it is a convenience store.  I haven’t seen a single 7-11, but I saw stores labelled dépanneur all over the place–mystifying, until I looked it up.

How you hold your rhinoceros head: Francophone used bookstores of Montreal

Le port de tête: the way you hold your head. Picture source: http://www.mesacosan.com/conseil-en-image-femme/comment-etre-elegante-avec-un-joli-port-de-tete-a2183.html.
Le port de tête: the way you hold your head. Picture source: http://www.mesacosan.com/conseil-en-image-femme/comment-etre-elegante-avec-un-joli-port-de-tete-a2183.html.

When you find a great bookstore, there’s always that question: do you keep it to yourself so that no one else gets the really good books, or do you tell the entire world about it so that the bookstore stays in business?  The long-term solution is clear: you have to tell people about it.  In that spirit, I’ll tell you how to find great Francophone used bookstores in Montreal.  All you have to do is go to rue Mont-Royal Est in the Plateau neighborhood and wander up and down the street.  Even on a Sunday afternoon, I found a number of used bookstores open–more accurately, bookstores with a mix of used and new books, for the most part–and they were all great.  If you want a place to sit and read your purchases, I recommend the Kahwa Café (more on that below).

If you want to find addresses for specific bookstores in the Plateau, as well as other Francophone used bookstores in Montreal, grouped by neighborhood, try this link.

Zipf’s Law strikes, as always, and I had to consult a dictionary just to understand the names of some of the bookstores:

  • Le port de tête: WordReference.com translates this as “the way you hold your head.”  Le port de tête is the name of one of the bookstores that I visited.  Looking for a way to use this expression, I found two pages of Google hits about the bookstore–and the picture on this blog post, in an article titled Comment être élégante avec un joli port de tête?  (How to be elegant, with a pretty port de tête?)
  • Le port: port, harbor, shelter; bearing, wearing (e.g. le port de lunettes, “wearing glasses”); bearing, way of holding, way of carrying.  That final sense is the one that we see in le port de tête.
  • le rhinocéros: rhinoceros.  In the Le port de tête bookstore, I asked the owner if she could recommend a cafe.  She told me about the Kawha Café, and told me that it was on the other side of the street, down the block, and had two [unintelligibles] sticking out of the wall, making this odd gesture of showing things sticking out of her forehead.  Turned out that the unintelligible words were “rhinoceros heads.”  Hard to catch, out of context, even with the helpful hand-gestures–I guess that now I know the international hand signal for “rhinoceros head,” though…  Picture below.
The Kahwa Café, in the Plateau district of Montreal. Picture by me.
The Kahwa Café, in the Plateau district of Montreal. Picture by me.

Flashing, nibbling, and the Poisson distribution

The Poisson distribution rears its ugly head in a discussion of flashing lights.

"Complete stop on flashing red."  Picture source: http://www.gazetteinfo.fr/2012/09/04/tramway-de-dijon-signifient-les/.
“Complete stop on flashing red.” Picture source: http://www.gazetteinfo.fr/2012/09/04/tramway-de-dijon-signifient-les/.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while–or just have a degree in something quantitative–you know about Zipf’s Law.  This formula describes the distribution of word frequencies, and captures the fact that our daily language is filled with a small number of words that occur extremely frequently (in English, the, a, me, and the like; in French, le, un, moi), and a very large number of words that almost never occur–and yet, they do occur, thus damning second language learners to a hell of constant dictionary consultation for the rest of their lives.

We’ve talked far less often about the Poisson distribution.  The related formula has the consequence that even rare events will sometimes occur in clusters.  Maybe three rock stars die in the same month, or the same tree gets hit with lightning twice in a week.  Similarly, it’s not that unusual to see unusual words in clusters.

I was reminded of that last night, when I ran into the verb clignoter, which is used in reference to lights and means to flicker or to blink.  I don’t think I’d ever run across it before, but I saw it not once, but twice yesterday: once in the elevator, related to the light that lets you know if your emergency call to whoever it is that answers emergency calls from elevators has succeeded, and once on a big sign at an intersection with a bunch of construction going on.  (Yes, I’m such a geek that I am basically constantly looking up new words.  That’s what smart phones were made for, right?)

Now that we know this rare-but-it-happens word, we need to cover another word to go with it.  For reasons that will be obvious to the phonologists in the audience, it looks almost identical to the word clignoter to a linguist, and I know that I’m going to confuse these two constantly, so let’s memorize them:

  • clignoter: [of a light] to blink or flash.
  • grignoter: to snack or nibble; to edge forward, to gain on.

There’s room for us all under the Big Red Maple Leaf, but the weather is iffy

Clouds over Montreal. Picture from http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/60752208.jpg.
Clouds over Montreal. Picture from http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/60752208.jpg.

Due to my poor command of the French language, I scared the heck out of my cousin.

I’m in Montréal for a family wedding.  Riding from the airport to the hotel, the cab driver was listening to the radio.  I heard this (if it’s in italics, it happened in French): 3 degrees tonight, 0 in the suburbs, chance of freezing.  Snow likely tomorrow. 

This wasn’t good news–lots of family coming into town for the wedding.  Really?, I asked the taxi driver.  Snow?  Tomorrow?  Yep, he answered.

Arriving at the hotel, I called my cousin, whose daughter is getting married this weekend.  “How’s the weather where you came from today, as opposed to here?”, he asked me.  (If it’s not in italics, it happened in English.)  “About like here,” I said–it’s quite nice here in Montreal today–“but I understand there might be snow tomorrow.”  “No.  No.  You’re kidding.  Snow?  It can’t,” says my cousin.  You see, several years ago, he had another occasion here.  It was April.  With all of the family in town, it snowed 12 inches, and no one could get out of town the next day.  “Well, maybe I misunderstood,” I said.  “My French isn’t that great.”

After we hung up, I looked up the word that I had heard on the radio that described what the weather was going to be like the next day.  Crap!  I always mistake these two words:

  • la neige: snow.
  • le nuage: cloud.

Indeed, it’s going to be cloudy tomorrow, not snowy–no need to panic.  I won’t soon be forgiven for the 5 years that I probably took off of my cousin’s life with that mistake, though!

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