On destiny

Of paper towels and 16th-century philosophers.

One of the things that makes French so fun to speak for anglophones is that many of the words that we’ve taken from French belong to a high register in English, but are everyday words in French. Case in point: the verb destiner.  In English, this is a high-register word that you probably wouldn’t use very often, meaning something like predetermined.  (Register is a technical term in linguistics that refers to something like the level of formality of usage.  In English, we basically have normal words, formal or academic words, and slang.  In francophone culture, it’s much more complicated–but, that’s a subject for another time.)  Here are the frequencies of destined (the only form that I know of for the word) and a few other words for comparison:

  • destined: 1.25 per million words
  • dog: 69 per million words
  • jump: 30 per million words

(This data is from the written section of the Open American National Corpus, a collection of 11 million words of written American English created by my colleague Nancy Ide at Vassar.  You can download it free here, if you’d like to see what a linguistic corpus looks like.)  Here are some pretty typical examples of how it’s used:

  • What more natural than that the White perception of a bird destined to become a plaything of the western world–as evidenced by another of its names, the lovebird – – should become paramount.
  • The French press gave prominence to President Jacques Chirac’s efforts to get the Russians to bring Milosevic back [to] the negotiating table, and an editorial in Monday’s Libération suggested this should be done by greatly reducing the area of Kosovo destined to become autonomous under the Rambouillet proposals.
  • The iris was more differentiated as evidenced by the fact that some of the cells destined to form the stroma had started to synthesize pigment and were, therefore, distinguishable from those of the future TM.

In contrast, in French the verb destiner means something like intended for or designed to be used as, and as far as I can tell, it’s a pretty everyday word.  Here are the frequencies of the French equivalents of the same English words that we looked at above:

  • destiner: 76 per million words (versus 1.25 per million words for the English word destined)
  • chien: 79 per million words (versus 69 per million words for the English word dog)
  • sauter: 43 per million words (30 per million words)

1.25 versus 76–that’s a pretty big difference.  It’s far more common in French, reflecting the fact that it’s a high-register word in English, but not in French.  (I got these frequencies from the Frantext corpus, a collection of 18th-20th-century French literature, which I picked because like the written section of the Open American National Corpus, it’s written language, and at 15.6 million words, it was the closest in size to it that I could find.  I searched both the Frantext corpus and the Open American National Corpus through the Sketch Engine web site, purveyor of fine linguistic data in many languages, and the tools for searching it.)

So: with destined being a high-register word in English, the sign that you see at the top of this post sounds pretty damn funny.  I ran into it in a bathroom the other day; it translates something like the toilets are routinely stuffed up by paper towels.  Please toss them in the trashcan that’s intended for them.  Americans are often attracted to the French language by way of Molière, or Rousseau, or Voltaire–but, ultimately, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun.

The title of this post is meant to be reminiscent of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French essayist who is considered to be the father of all magazine writers.  Many of his essays have titles like On experience, On idleness (he was a fan), Of the arms of the Parthians, and the like.

5 thoughts on “On destiny”

  1. For some reasons Anglophone speakers chose to reserve words of French origin for high register language and to keep for everyday’s life words brought by the hairy Northern Barbarians . People in France didn’t play a role in this and couldn’t either . It’s a purely intimate English perversion .
    About this habit received from Montaigne (whose home is not far from my place) regarding titles of chapters, habit hundreds of times imitated later, you translated it by “On …”. It could have been in French too “Sur…”, like “Sur l’amour”, “Sur le Destin”, etc… Montaigne and his posterior imitators chose the formula “De l’…” or of course “Du …” depending on the gender and spelling of the following word as usual in this funny language . So it is “De l’amour” or “Du Destin”. My hypothesis is it is a reduction of “Ce chapitre va traiter de l’amour, du destin, or “Je vais parler del’amour, du destin” . Now we are deeply accustomed to this form of chapter titles but I must admit it was a funny idea from Montaigne and his followers . Your English translation would have been more expected .

    Liked by 1 person

      1. He was a funny guy . He loved pleasure and hated constraint . But he used his brain for all, even for that . Sometimes he asked his valet to wake him up before dawn, because he so much hated the feeling when he was forced to get up far too early, that he created the pleasure of being horribly woken up as too often and realizing he could deliciously stay in his warm and soft bed to just sweetly rolling again into sleep . That was this kind of man .
        Of course regarding the essential, philosophy, he was for Descartes what John the Baptist had been for Jesus . Montaigne, like Descartes, undertook the task of finding what he could consider as certain, what he KNEW, and he got to the conclusion that even saying “I don’t know” was a presomptuous assertion . So the final offspring of his quest was “What do I know?”, the famous teaching of Montaigne “Que sais-je ?” .
        When at the age of 15 I discovered this official final thought of this philosopher I thought it was too cool . So unexpected for my young age I received it nearly like a piece of art .


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