The smells of France: nice stuff, yucky stuff

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Street sign on campus.  “Guichet Station: variant (way to get there) by the Gutter path.”  Picture source: me.

Brigitte wrinkled her nose as we walked back to the office from the dining hall the other day.  “It smells like an égout around here.”  “This wants to say what, égout?,” I asked.  It turns out to be “sewer.”  This was just the beginning of the sudden appearance in my life of a number of words related to things that wastewater runs through, none of which I knew before.  Zipf’s Law meets the Poisson Distribution, I guess–that is to say, even rare events show up in clusters sometimes.

According to the Wikipedia page on the subject, the first Parisian sewers date back to 1370.  The current Parisian sewer system dates to about 1855, and was ordered by Napoleon III.  The sewers feature in novels occasionally; Wikipedia claims that the battle to clear the sewers of Paris of zombies is one of the most hard-fought battles in Max Brooks’s amazing World War Z (the movie is practically unrelated and not very good), but I believe it was actually the catacombs.  There’s actually a sewer museum in Paris, if you want to know more.

Definitions from

  • l’égout (m.): sewer, drain; (literary) cesspit.
  • la gouttière: gutter (for draining rainwater from a roof).
  • le caniveau: gutter (at the sides of a street). 

Why is the path in the street sign that is pictured above called le sentier de la Gouttière, the Gutter path?  I’m guessing that it’s because it’s basically a trough-shaped depression in the ground running down one side of the hill on which our campus is located.  Walking down it at this time of year, you smell wet leaves and wood smoke.  It’s a nice way to end my day.

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