Zipf’s Law and burning at the stake

Cathars being burnt alive at Montségur.  Picture source:
Cathars being burnt alive at Montségur. Picture source:

It’s the end of the peak publishing period in France–between late August and early November–and the beginning of the season of literary prizes.  Mathias Enard took the Goncourt prize yesterday for his novel Boussole (“compass; barometer (figurative), indicator”–definitions from, and this morning all of the guests on my news program were writers.  One of them read an essay on the subject of death as a revolutionary act (my favorite French news show is even more cerebral–like, by a long shot–than National Public Radio, the most intellectual of American news shows).  Along the way, he talked about the shift from cremation in the the classical world to burial in the Christian world, pointing out that in the Christian world, only witches and heretics die at the stake.  (If you’re reading this and are not a native speaker of English: the word “stake” typically means a piece of wood that has been sharpened at one end–what you kill a vampire with, right?  If the stake is stuck in the ground and someone is tied to it and burnt alive, it’s called “THE stake.”)

It was a perfect Zipf’s Law moment.  The word for “the stake” is le bûcher.  Is that an obscure word, in the sense of being one that most people wouldn’t know?  Not at all.  Is it a common word?  Not at all.  Why the hell would anyone know this word in a foreign language, though?  Last summer or so, I chanced upon my father reading Le bûcher de Montségur, the classic book on the siege of the Cathars at the Montségur fortress in southern France.  (Yes, there is a classic book on the siege of the Cathars at the Montségur fortress, in English, as well as in French.)  The Cathars were considered heretics, and when they surrendered to royalist troops, about 220 of them were burnt to death in a massive bonfire.  I didn’t know what the word bûcher in the title of the book meant, so I looked it up, then duly memorized it, despite my confidence that I would never see it again.  Over a year later, it’s literary award season, and I run into it again, on the morning news…  Zipf’s Law at its best.

So, in the spirit of the literary prize season, let’s look at some meanings of bûcher, both as a noun and as a verb.  Definitions from

  • le bûcher (tas de bois où on brûle les morts): funeral pyre.  This is presumably the sense in Le bûcher de Montségur.
  • le bûcher (tas de bois où on exécutait les coupables): stake.
  • le bûcher (abri pour bois): woodshed.
  • le bûcheron: lumberjack, woodcutter.  (Like that derived noun?)
  • bûcher: to work your butt off.  (In Quebec, it can also mean “to log, fell trees; to chop wood.”)

If you’re reading this and you’re French: please note that to us Americans, the word bûcher (stake, funeral pyre) and boucher (butcher) sound the same, so please have mercy on us if we say one when you’re sure we mean the other.  Feel free to correct our pronunciation, though–it’s good for us.

2 thoughts on “Zipf’s Law and burning at the stake”

  1. thanks for reminding us the Goncourt is out, some years it’s great reading. Cathars are a fascinating burp in Christian history The stake-butcher (steak?) mispronuniciation would be great stand-up comedy material 🙂 thanks as always for such interesting facts and language details


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