Spleens, 3x5s, Molière, and French grad students

2016-03-24 07.16.50
3x5s or index cards. The name “3×5” comes from their size, which is 3 inches by 5 inches.

My morning routine includes studying French vocabulary, which means flash cards.  I make my flash cards from what we call in English index cards or 3x5s (pronounced “three by fives”–they take that name from the fact that they normally measure 3 inches by 5 inches).  Recently I’ve been amusing my younger coworkers by sharing my current vocabulary flash cards, and I have been impressed beyond belief by the breadth and depth of the English vocabulary that these kids have.  “Talon”?  No problem.  “Greenhouse”?  They’ve got it.  Yesterday I ran into the word rate, “spleen,” in the play Le malade imaginaire, a 17th-century French play by Molière.  One of them explained to me the various and sundry forms with which the English word “spleen” can be translated into French.  The word has at least five meanings in English.  The most common meaning is the internal organ that most vertebrates have, located on the left side in humans near the stomach and playing a role in a variety of processes, including ridding the body of old red blood cells and being involved in the immune response.  The other meaning, which is not nearly as common but is still found in the language, is given by Merriam and Webster as “feelings of anger or ill will often suppressed.”  These get split into two different words in French.

  • la rate: spleen (the internal organ).
  • le spleen: melancholy or ennui, and archaically, the same anger-related meaning as in English.
Illu_spleen
The spleen, or la rate. Picture source: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1394146.

It was quite impressive to hear a computer scientist explain the 17th-century meaning of the word–that’s not something that I would expect an American computer science grad student to be able to do for the English equivalent.  I’ve been reading Molière, and apparently she has done so, too–again, I wouldn’t expect an American computer science grad student to be familiar with Shakespearean vocabulary.

It amazes me that there seems to be no French equivalent to the 3×5.  (I saw friends exchange the sidelong glances that I inspire so often here by accidentally saying inappropriate things when I referred to them by the Canadian term, fiches vierges–it can mean “blank cards,” but also “virgin cards.”)  I only survived my education by using these things to obsessively memorize pretty much every term, equation, and random fact that I was taught.  Considering the very demanding nature of the French educational system, I’m baffled by how French students manage to pass the  exams that are required to progress through the system without some equivalent of index cards.  I throw several packs of them into my luggage every time that I come to France, and can’t imagine learning as much as I do without them.

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