Tossing out lexical fields

Leave it to a linguist to suck the joy out of pretty much anything. Picture source:

One of the many things to like about France: random people will occasionally toss out words and concepts that would be quite unusual in the United States.  (To toss out explained below in the English notes.)  Case in point: the expression “lexical field.”  A lexical field, also known as a semantic field, is a set of words that share some focus of meaning.  In American English, this is a highly technical term, and you wouldn’t expect to hear it come out of the mouth of anyone who isn’t an academic of some sort.  As Wikipedia puts it: The kinds of semantic fields vary from culture to culture and anthropologists use them to study belief systems and reasoning across cultural groups.[7]  ….The term is also used in other academic disciplines, such as … computational semiotics,[4] and technical exegesis.[5]

In France: not nearly so obscure.  It came up over a glass of wine with a friend one night, and I’m talking about a music person, not a linguist friend.   Yesterday evening I ran across it on a web site for kids who are preparing for the bac, the high school exit exam.  Here is how it showed up:

Montaigne parsème ainsi son texte du champ lexical du combat: “César,” “Alexandre,” “grand besogne,” “vigueur,” “courage,” “violentes occupations,” “grands maniements,” “batailles,” “provinces,” “grand et glorieux.”

In English:

Thus, Montaigne sprinkles his text with the lexical field of combat: “Caesar,” “Alexander,” “great work,” “vigor,” “courage,” “violent activities,” [not sure how to translate maniements–can a native speaker help?], “battles,” “provinces” [Montaigne refers to conquering them–bear in mind that at the time of writing in the 1500s, it wasn’t that long since Louis XIV had finished the unification of France], “great and glorious.”

Wrap your head around that one: a concept that most of us almost certainly didn’t run into until college, and probably not even then—the lexical field—is used in test-prep materials for high school students, without explanation.   And people ask me why I like to hang out there…

French and English notes follow…

English notes:

to toss out: in this sense, it means something like “to mention casually,” similar to Definition 2 on the Merriam-Webster web site.  Note that it has many other meanings, mostly negative ones having to do with discarding something.  An example of the sense in which I’m using it here, from this story by Alexandra Rosenmann:  “Tell me,” Trump continued. “I mean, I don’t know. You tell me.”  It’s a phrase Trump tosses out a lot: Discussions on everything from Obama’s birthplace, to why gays support Clinton, to why Ghazala Khan stayed silent at the DNC all end the same. Either Trump’s stumped, or he thinks we are.  How it appeared in the post: One of the many things to like about France: random people will occasionally toss out words that would be quite unusual in the United States.

French notes:

Translations from

  • la besogne: hard work, task, labor.
  • besogner: to slave away.
  • besogner quelqu’un: to have sex with someone. gives pénétrer as an explanation of the phrase, so presumably this can only have a man as the logical subject (a technical term–my dog is the logical subject of both My dog stole the butter and The butter was stolen by my dog, but it is the grammatical subject only of My dog stole the butter.  She did, too–horrible shit to clean up for the next 24 hours or so…).
  • C’est aller en peu vite en besogne: to be a bit hasty or premature, to get ahead of oneself a bit.
  • la basse besogne: dirty work.  From Twitter: Honte à ceux qui utilisent les enfants pour leur basse besogneAnother tweet: au fait ce ne sont pas des flics femmes qui auraient dû faire cette basse besogne?????????



9 thoughts on “Tossing out lexical fields”

    1. Yes I always read “besogner” when a man was acting, but I only read it in classical literature, not much in the XXth century, and nobody says it except to make a scholar’s joke . You often find it in Marquis de Sade’s books for instance .
      “Une besogne” is always a task, a labor, but not especially hard work .


  1. You’d better check before invading hthe historical field . France as it looks now was achieved by Louis XIII, little XIVth father . Louis XIII also chose Versailles as a place for the kings . And France, more or less as it looks now plus some North-Eastern extensions, had already been unified and ruled by the first Merovingian king Clovis around 500 AD .


      1. A big difference. A punter is a customer (the original definition was someone hiring a prostitute), a tosser is literally a man who masturbates freely but is used to describe a man who is selfish and boorish – it’s mildly politer than wanker but means pretty much the same thing. Neither would be used appropriately as feminine descriptors.

        Liked by 1 person

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