Covered with baking-soda-and-water paste

So, I’m sitting on the front porch with Champ, idly smoking a cigarette and wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet, when Champ says: “Wanna chewing gum.”

Idly smoking a cigarette and wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet is an example of scope ambiguity. The issue is the word idly.  It may “have scope over” both the verb smoking and the verb wondering, in which case you could paraphrase the sentence fragment as idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet and smoking a cigarette or, indeed, as idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet and idly smoking a cigarette.

On the other hand, it might only “have scope over” smoking a cigarette, in which case the only possible paraphrase is smoking a cigarette and idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet.

I was a little distracted by the “wasp versus hornet” question, ’cause I had just stepped on a nest of one or the other, and was now covered in a paste of baking soda and water.  So, I didn’t immediately notice how fucking weird it was that Champ was asking for chewing gum, given that he’s a chow-shepherd mix.

 Autrement dit: Champ is a dog. You know that Champ is a dog even though all I said was that he’s a chow-shepherd mix because of two things. One is that you have a chunk of knowledge about the world–an ontology to a philosopher, lexical or encyclopedic knowledge to a linguist (long story, don’t ask–or if you really want to know, see Elisabetta Jezek’s wonderful book The Lexicon). Your chunk of knowledge: a chow is a kind of dog, a shepherd is a kind of dog, and a mix is a kind of dog. The other thing is that deductive logic is, like, a law of the universe–if the premises are true, then anything that follows from them must, necessarily, be true. Chow-shepherd mixes are dogs, Champ is a chow-shepherd mix, therefore Champ is a dog.  It’s just, like, the way reality works. Trump’s insanity notwithstanding.

So, I say “Champ, you don’t even know what chewing gum is.”  “Um, yeah… no, don’t know.” “Champ, you don’t even know how to use a pronoun.” “Um, no… don’t know.”  I was feeling pretty smug.  I mean, I’m dumb enough to step on a hornet’s nest (or were those fuckers wasps?), but I’m smarter than the dog, right?

“Wanna pizza,” says Champ.

I smirked.  Time to make fun of the dog, right? Make myself feel better about myself by insulting someone else.  Show that dog which of us went to Wharton, and which of us didn’t.

I always wondered how Trump could have gotten into Wharton, as incurious and proudly ignorant he is.  Then we find out that he paid someone to take the business school entrance exams for him. Big shock, right?

“Champ, you don’t even know what a pizza is.” 

“Well…” …and he paused.  I smirked again: another “no” coming, no doubt.  Another missing pronoun coming, too–no doubt about that, either.

“Well… people mostly think of as circular, but that’s not entirely correct, ’cause crust is always irregular. But, thinking about as circular is not necessarily a problem even though ‘re irregular, ’cause can model circumference by setting a fixed value for radius, defining a range of values for an error term, and then drawing a random number (with replacement) from that range and randomly either adding or subtracting from radius.”

Sampling “with replacement” means that you can draw the same thing (in this case, a number for fucking with the radius) more than once. So, you could draw, say, 0.05 inches this time, and still draw 0.05 inches another time.

“Real problem with circular model,” he continued, “is not failure of real pizzas to form a perfect circle. Real problem is that not all pizzas are circular. In particular, Chicago deep dish pizzas are, believe, typically rectangular. But, although ‘s a real conceptual flaw with model, market share of Chicago deep dish pizza has dropped so low since 1980s that in practice, doesn’t really matter.”

What the fuck could I say to that?  I mean, I’m not totally clear on what exactly a “radius” is, but it sounded convincing.

Still: I can’t be out-smarted by a chow-shepherd mix, right? No problem–in the end, I have an MBA, and he doesn’t.  “Well…you’re not so smart–you don’t even know how to use pronouns.  You don’t even know when to say “the.”

“Weeeell…”, he says. Ha, I thought. Got him there.  And notice that I know how to use pronouns…”

“Weeeell…, ‘s not that surprising, if think about it. Pronouns and definite articles are very similar with respect to any good model of discourse. Both require a known antecedent. Well, with exception of frame-licensed definites and pleonastic pronouns, of course.”

I dabbed some more baking-soda-and-water paste on my wasp bites (or hornet bites–who knows?) to gain some time.  Finally, I thought: fuck it–unlike Trump, I know an expert when I see one.

“Hey, Champ? How do you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet?”

“Weeeeell… Actually, think were yellowjackets….”

I had a dream: Subjunctives in English and elsewhere

I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all.

So, I laid in bed staring at the ceiling for what felt like an interminable amount of time.  Finally got up and looked at the clock: 4 AM. Before I woke up, I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all.

Before I woke up, I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all: English is my native language, but I’m not sure that what I just said makes sense.  It seems hopelessly unclear.  Is it the case that “in fact” I wasn’t sleeping well in the dream, or that “in fact” I wasn’t sleeping well in real life?  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well in real life–I was just dreaming that I was.  I don’t know of a way to disambiguate that in English.  What is called for here: a language with a robust past tense of the subjunctive.

The subjunctive mood is the term that is usually given for grammatical structures that express things that are in the realm of wishes, desires, opinions, and possibilities, as opposed to things that are facts.  It just barely exists in English, and as far as I know, in English it is always optional.  To the best of my knowledge, the subjunctive only exists for the verb to be.  Here’s what it looks like, in typical American English and in the Pacific Northwest dialect.  This is a way that you can give someone advice:

  • Typical American: If I was you, I wouldn’t do that.
  • Pacific Northwest: If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.

The difference: in typical American English, you would use the past tense form for the first person singular: was.  In the Pacific Northwest, you use were.  We use was for the past tense, of course–it’s only in the subjunctive that you see this weird use of the were form.  You use it for other persons, too, in the subjunctive:

  • Typical American: If he was smarter, he wouldn’t have done that.
  • Pacific Northwest: If he were smarter, he wouldn’t have done that.

Well: English does not have a robust past subjunctive at all.  Some languages do, though.  How might I talk about my dream in one of them?  Let’s consider some options.

Modern colloquial French does not have a robust past subjunctive at all.  Literary French does, though–a leftover from earlier forms of the language, and what we would be looking at here is an ongoing action, so it would be the subjunctive imperfect that we’d be using.  (I think–again, I’m not a native speaker.)  Here’s an attempt at both of them, neither of which I speak natively, or even well:

Modern colloquial French: Je rêvais que je dormais bien, tandis que de fait je ne dormais point bien.

Literary French: Je rêvais que je dormisse bien, tandis que de fait je ne dormait point bien.

In contrast with modern colloquial French, modern colloquial Spanish does, in fact, have a robust past subjunctive.  “Robust” in the sense that people do actually use it.  Let’s try that:

Soñaba que durmiera bien, aunque de hecho no dormía nada de bien.

…aaaaaand, with that I see that in Literary French and in modern colloquial Spanish, you can express the case where in real life I wasn’t sleeping well at all, but I don’t see a good way in either language to convey the situation where it’s in the dream that I wasn’t sleeping well.  Have I fucked up all four languages (English, modern colloquial French, literary French, and modern colloquial Spanish) here?  Forgive me, ’cause it’s not even 5 AM, and I didn’t sleep well last night.

Scroll down past the video of the somewhat cute song L’Imparfait du subjonctif, “The Imperfect Subjunctive” (Pourtant je le pus et vous pûtes, hee hee hee) if you want to read the English notes.  Otherwise: go back to bed.

English notes

To disambiguate: To differentiate between two possible senses (meanings) of something (“of an utterance,” as a linguist would put it).  In computational linguistics, it usually means to find the intended sense.

  • In the French sentence L’étagère plie sous les livres (‘The shelf is bending under [the weight of] the books’), it is necessary to disambiguate the sense of livres (which can mean ‘books’ or ‘pounds’ and is masculine in the former sense, feminine in the latter) to properly tag it as a masculine noun. (Ide, Nancy, and Jean Véronis. “Introduction to the special issue on word sense disambiguation: the state of the art.” Computational Linguistics 24.1 (1998): 1-40.)
  • Lapata and Brew (1999) and others have shown that the different syntactic subcategorization frames of a verb such as serve can be used to help disambiguate a particular instance of the word. (Gildea, Daniel, and Daniel Jurafsky. “Automatic labeling of semantic roles.” Computational Linguistics 28.3 (2002): 245-288.)
  • When you search for information regarding a particular person on the web, a search engine returns many pages. Some of these pages may be for people with the same name. How can we disambiguate these different people with the same name? (Bollegala, Danushka, Yutaka Matsuo, and Mitsuru Ishizuka. “Extracting key phrases to disambiguate personal names on the web.” International Conference on Intelligent Text Processing and Computational Linguistics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2006.)

For example: I giggled about the lyrics Pourtant je le pus et vous pûtes because when spoken, it is ambiguous: it could mean either however, I could and you could (the intended sense) or however, I stink of it and you whore.  In the latter sense–which, I will note, makes no sense, and we will return to that fact momentarily–it would be written pourtant je le pue et vous pute.  So, it’s not ambiguous in writing, but it is à l’oral. 

Now: almost everything that you will say, hear, write, or read today will be ambiguous in some way.  But, humans are so good at disambiguating that we notice that ambiguity only rarely.  How do we do it?  It’s mostly mysterious, but our behavior is consistent with the notion that we calculate the set of possible meanings and select the one which is most probable.  That’s a very different thing from our normal way of thinking consciously about this, in which I might say that “I stink of it and you whore” makes no sense.  “Makes no sense” implies that there is a binary distinction–either something “makes sense,” or it doesn’t.  When you talk in terms of probabilities, then you are thinking of meanings as something that can be more or less, which is very different from being, or not.

How do computer programs do this?  Computational linguists build systems that work more or less the way that we think humans work: determine the set of possible meanings, calculate a probability for each one, and select the most-probable of the set.  What happens if there’s a tie? Well…read this paper by Antske Fokkens.

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To and fro the hanging men go

Magpies and crows have dug our eyes out // And yanked out our beards and eyebrows

I’m not typically a fan of pie charts, but this one is…special… Scroll down for some notes on what to and fro means, as well as musings about potential French equivalents.

Poetically, my latest obsession is François Villon.  Having lived in the 1300s, the details of his life are not super-clear, beyond the facts that he was semi-adopted by an influential clergyman, then well-educated, in the process doing a lot of drinking, fighting, whoring,  some theft and a bit of murder.  A couple of pardons from the gallows let him live long enough to go into exile a couple times, in the process of which he disappears from the historical record entirely at the age of 31.  In the meantime, he wrote some truly amazing poetry. If you’re anglophone, you most likely know one line from his poetry, although perhaps nothing else:

…but where are the snows of yesteryear?

On the other hand, if you’re French and you only know of one thing by him, it’s probably La ballade des pendus, “The Ballad of the Hanging Men” (my translation, sorry).

La pluie nous a débués et lavés
Et le soleil désséchés et noircis
Pies, corbeaux, nous ont les yeux cavés
Et arrachés la barbe et les sourcils
Jamais nul temps nous sommes assis
Puis ça, puis là, comme le vent varie
À son plaisir sans cesser nous charie
Plus bécquetés d’oiseaux que dés à coudre
Ne soyez donc de notre confrérie
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre.

Where this becomes relevant is puis ça, puis là, comme le vent varie.  Here’s my attempt at a translation:

The rain has — and washed us
And the sun dried us out and blackened us
Magpies and crows have dug our eyes out
And yanked out our beards and eyebrows
We can never, ever sit down
To and fro, as the wind varies
Carrying us around as it likes, without end
More pecked-out by birds than thimbles
So, don’t be of our fellowship
But pray to God that he absolve all of us translates to and fro as d’avant en arrière, which is OK in a literal sense, but doesn’t capture the feeling of it at all.  Then again, I can’t swear that it’s a great translation for puis ça, puis là, either.  Here and there could work (ça et là); hither and yon works, but it’s somewhat humorous, which doesn’t fit here at all.  The mysteries of translation…

I’ll leave you with my favorite reading of La ballade des pendus. It’s by one Gérald Robert, who appears to be a voice actor by profession, and/but does one fuck of a good Ballade.   Thanks for the great pie chart, LJJ, and for telling me about Villon, Phil d’Ange, and if someone can tell me what débué means, I would be very appreciative!

American culture: Graham crackers and auto insurance

You can memorize vocabulary, but you can’t memorize a culture…

A depressing realization: I can memorize French vocabulary, but I can’t memorize the culture.  Some things just continue to puzzle me: sitting in a theater watching a French movie, why does the whole place erupt in laughter when I have absolutely no idea why?  And why is it that when I laugh during the same movie, the rest of the audience is completely silent?  And the obsession with the Masons–what’s up with that?  

I think that the Freemason thing might be related to the generalized French suspicion of associationssince the Revolution of 1789, but that’s just a guess…

My coronavirus planque (hiding place) of the moment: New Orleans, Louisiana.  I know a bunch of French teachers here, and delight in the opportunity to explain various oddities of American culture to them.  What is a “maraschino cherry,” exactly?  (No clue, actually.) What are comprehensive, liability, and uninsured motorist? (As people try to figure out what to do with their summer off now that they realize that if they go home to France, they risk not being able to cross the American border in the fall, in which case they would lose their jobs.  Consequently, people are buying cars, renting campers, and just generally looking for means of transportation that will allow them to visit the United States without ever having to board an airplane.)  And most puzzling of all: if graham crackers are crackers, why are they sweet??

I don’t know, and in fact I find that fact even more puzzling than the French, since as an American, I am aware that they were meant to be a health food.  From Wikipedia:

The graham cracker was inspired by the preaching of Sylvester Graham who was part of the 19th-century temperance movement. He believed that minimizing pleasure and stimulation of all kinds, coupled with a vegetarian diet anchored by bread made from wheat coarsely ground at home, was how God intended people to live, and that following this natural law would keep people healthy. His preaching was taken up widely in the midst of the 1829–51 cholera pandemic.[3]:15–27[4]:29–35 [5][6] His followers were called Grahamites and formed one of the first vegetarian movements in America; graham flour, graham crackers, and graham bread were created for them.

Temperance is avoidance of alcohol for reasons of morality.  The temperance movement aimed to discourage alcohol use.  It eventually resulted in Prohibition, the national illegalization of alcohol production, sale, and use.  Prohibition was a goldmine for the criminal underworld, and it was eventually repealed.

Oddly, this was intended to be an essay about French vocabulary for metal fasteners–nuts, bolts, and the like.  So it goes sometimes…

English notes

comprehensive: A kind of auto insurance that reimburses you if something happens to your car, other than an accident.

liability: Insurance policy for a car that reimburses the other guy if you cause an accident.

uninsured motorist: Insurance policy for a car that reimburses you if the other guy causes an accident, but doesn’t have liability insurance of his own.


Auto insurance for crashes: liability covers the other guy if you are at fault; uninsured motorist covers you if the other guy is at fault and doesn’t have a liability policy.

Auto insurance for everything other than crashes: comprehensive.

Just to make sure that we’ve got this straight, here’s a little quiz–scroll down past the graham cracker pictures for the answers.

  1. Your car is parked in front of your house.  A tree falls on it.  What kind of policy would get you reimbursed for the damage?
  2. You are driving to work when some asshole slams into your car and takes off–a hit-and-run in English, délit de fuite in French.  What kind of policy would get you covered for the damage that he caused?  (In theory, an asshole is intrinsically male.  The female equivalent, according to the philosopher Aaron James (author of the classic Assholes: A Theory), is a bitch.)
  3. You are on your way home from visiting an alligator farm when you rear-end some guy on his way home from a tour of the bayou.  What kind of policy would compensate him for the damages?
  4. You have liability insurance, but no other kind of auto insurance policy.  A hailstorm ruins your paint job.  Will your insurance company pay to have it redone?
  5. Which kind of auto insurance policy would you expect to be mandatory in every part of the United States, and why?
Graham cracker crumbs form the base of a number of delicious desserts. Picture source:
graham crackers
Commercially-made graham crackers, FAR more common than the homemade kind. Picture source:

Answers to the auto insurance quiz

  1. Your car is parked in front of your house.  A tree falls on it.  What kind of policy would get you reimbursed for the damage? Comprehensive–if you have it. Otherwise, you’re screwed.
  2. You are driving to work when some asshole slams into your car and takes off–a hit-and-run in English, délit de fuite in French.  What kind of policy would get you covered for the damage that he caused?  (In theory, an asshole is intrinsically male.  The female equivalent, according to the philosopher xxxx, is a bitch.His liability policy, assuming that he has one and that the police can find him.  If not: your uninsured motorist policy, if you have one.  If you don’t: you’re fucked.
  3. You are on your way home from visiting an alligator farm when you rear-end some guy on his way home from a tour of the bayou.  What kind of policy would compensate him for the damages? Your liability policy if you have one (and you’d damn well better–it’s mandatory.  Otherwise, his uninsured motorist policy, if he has one.  Otherwise, he’s fucked.
  4. You have liability insurance, but no other kind of auto insurance policy.  A hailstorm ruins your paint job.  Will your insurance company pay to have it redone?  No.  If you had comprehensive, it would cover this–otherwise, tough shit.
  5. Which kind of auto insurance policy would you expect to be mandatory in every part of the United States, and why? Liability, since at minimum you need to be able to compensate the other guy for any damage that you cause.


Oral comprehension of English: ranges of years

The kid just hung his head. “This was my third try.”

In 2016, I took a test of French language proficiency. It was for the C1 level of the European standardized language skill rating system, known as the CEFR, or Common European Frame of Reference.  In the typical CEFR exam, you have four separate tests for oral and written production and comprehension.  At the C1 level, the requirements for oral comprehension include things like being able to understand speakers who interrupt each other, and announcements over a crappy train station sound system with lots of background noise.

It’s not easy–certainly the hardest part of the four tests.  After I walked out it, a very unhappy-looking kid in the hall asked me if I thought I had passed.  I asked him the same question.  He just hung his head.  This was my third try, he said.

So….since you’re stuck in COVID-19 confinement anyway, why not work on your English oral comprehension?  This video contains a fat old bald guy reading ranges of years, waiting a few seconds for you to write them down, and then telling you what happened during that period of time.  If you’re planning to go to school in an anglophone country, or to work in any kind of technical capacity, the ability to understand ranges of numbers is essential–I hope that you find this video helpful for practicing those skills! You can find more videos on various and sundry aspects of spoken American English on the Zipf’s Law YouTube channel.

Coronavirus binge-watching: Into The Night

“Lapider”: to stone. Such a beautiful word for such a horrible way to kill someone.

As I write this, most of the US has been under confinement for going on two months. For me, it has been two months, ’cause I spent the week before everything went to shit isolating myself voluntarily–I was coughing like crazy, with what turned out to be whooping cough–and I didn’t want to get stoned to death on the Washington DC Metro.  (Lapider–to stone. Such a beautiful word for such a horrible way to kill someone.)

So, the other night I’m watching a new apocalyptic series on Netflix.  The crisis is not realistic, the most unrealistic of the characters is especially irritating, and…well, in general, it’s just an irritating show.  I put down my iPad in frustration, step out on the porch, and light a cigarette.

I light my cigarette, and I’m thinking about what’s going on in the real apocalypse: people dying. People’s jobs disappearing. And all of it far worse than it has to be, because the Liar-In-Chief is characterologically incapable of seeing that the way for him to handle this is not by incessantly lying through his fucking teeth, but by telling our country the truth. By putting federal dollars into testing, not by claiming that there are plenty of tests available for everyone, which is manifestly false–all while having himself and his suppôts tested daily, while front-line medical personnel go without.  Asshole.

I light my cigarette, and I’m thinking all of that, and I realize: escaping for a little while into the space of an unrealistic apocalypse would feel far better than thinking about the real one…and back into the night I go.

The unrealistic apocalyptic Netflix show to which I am now completely addicted is called Into The Night (Dans la nuit in French).  It’s in French, and in a particularly interesting French, because many of the characters are not natively francophone, so they have accents, and that fucks me up totally.  For my fellow amerloques, here’s a bit of the vocabulary that I had to look up in the first episode.

The passport control guy in the Brussels airport recognizes one of the main characters, sees that she’s flying to Moscow, and asks her:

  • Tu vas mixer ? 
    • “You spinning there?” (from the English-language subtitles, ’cause I couldn’t find mixer in the dictionary)
    • “You DJing there?” (from the British English soundtrack, ’cause see above, plus there’s no American English soundtrack)
  • Non, c’est juste une apparition.
    • No, it’s just an appearance.  (subtitles)
    • No, just publicity. (British English soundtrack, and by the way, non-Americans never believe me when I say that Americans don’t necessarily understand spoken British English, but it’s nonetheless true)

One of the characters is buying a last-minute plane ticket, and the clerk says to him:

  • Le prix s’élève à 4.235 euros.
    • The price comes to 4,235 euros.
  • Je prends.
    • I’ll take it.

s’élever à: to come to, to amount to. You use these expressions in English primarily when a price has multiple components.  So, if you buy a hamburger, and a hamburger costs $5.00, then the kid at the cash register might say: ok, that’s $5.00.  But, if you add cheese at $1.00, a slice of tomato at $0.50, and pickles at $0.50 (I have no clue what the actual prices are–who orders a hamburger at a place like that?? Not that I haven’t worked in a couple of ’em), then the clerk might say: ok, that comes to $7.00.  When do you use s’élever à in French? I have no idea–Phil d’Ange?

Here one of the characters–a Flemish dude with heavily accented French, so I don’t know how correct this is–sees people boarding the plane before him, and says the following.  What I didn’t know the meaning of was ça, alors !

  • Oh, on peut monter avant les premières classes ? Ça, alors !
    • I didn’t think anyone got to board before first class. (subtitles)
    • Looks like some people are better than first class.  You know?  Huh? Huh? (British English soundtrack)

WordReference gives a number of meanings for it, all of which are expressions of surprise.  Of them, the best translation for this case is probably well, I never! …which would typically have some connotations of a disagreeable surprise. Like, someone does something totally rude to you, or tells you a story about something shitty that someone did to them–Trump’s replacement for his original Attorney General just had the charges dropped against a guy who had already pled guilty twice of lying to the FBI about his interactions with the Russians during the transition. –Well, I never!  Of course, that conversation implies that an American exists who can still be shocked by Trump’s betrayals of America…

…and I put out my cigarette, and back to Episode 5 I go.

Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have any conflicts of interest.  I pay for my monthly Netflix subscription just like everybody else, and the tobacco industry sure as hell isn’t giving me any freebies.

Coronavirus entertainment: Tattooing yourself

American English oral comprehension practice, with coronavirus and some tattoos

A bit of English listening practice: here’s an NPR story about a tattoo artist who is keeping himself entertained by tattooing…himself.  I’ve put together a list of some vocabulary items that you might not have come across before.  If you would like other aspects of the language of the story explained, please say so in the Comments section!

ink: The basic meaning of this word as a noun is encre. When the announcer says (at 12 seconds into the story) that the tattoo artist has given himself one new piece of ink every day in quarantine, he means that the man is giving himself one tattoo every day. Nowadays you can also use this word as a verb, to ink, which means to give a tattoo, or to tattoo. Examples below.

to sport [something]: to wear proudly. Merriam-Webster defines it this way: “to display or wear usually ostentatiously.” At 15 seconds into the story, the reporter says Woodhead, who already sported hundreds of tattoos…

CNN: A popular cable news channel. It is roughly the BFM-TV of the United States–relatively short stories versus a lot of in-depth programming; the same stories played over and over; and, it should be said, some very good commentators, particularly Fareed Zakaria, a pretty unattractive man who I would nonetheless love to have a cup of coffee with due to his great insights into the world and the news of the day.



Fiche le camp, Jack: English idiomatic expressions with “to hit”

One of the most delightful books I have ever read in French is named Les Mots et la chose–“Words and The Thing.”  “The thing” is a euphemism for “sex.”  The conceit of the book is that an actress who earns her keep by dubbing pornographic movies has grown weary of the limited vocabulary that her job calls for, so she writes to a retired linguist who specialized in words for la chose to ask for suggestions.  He comes through in spades, with separate chapters for all of the relevant body parts, and of course for l’acte itself.  My favorite: Le détroit des Dardanelles,  the Strait of the Dardanelles, for that part of your body where poo comes out and where, between friends, other things might occasionally go in.

I keep seeing all of these articles in the paper about how to fight coronavirus-quarantine-related boredom.  I don’t get it–I haven’t been this busy in ages.  Telecommuting; reminding my father to eat, to take his medicine, and to let me do his laundry; making masked food runs to the grocery store; eating half of a chocolate babka in a single day (damn it, Zipf); sitting on the front porch smoking cigarettes and petting the dog–I barely have time to learn my 10 words per day of French vocabulary.

Of course, none of that has stopped me from spending inordinate amounts of time looking up French-language covers of classic American songs.  For example, Fiche le camp, Jack is a cover of Hit the Road, Jack, a favorite from before my childhood (and hence, a long fucking time ago).  A cover differs from a dubbed version in that where dubbing involves an original video version whose audio track is replaced, a cover is a de novo production.  So, if there is a video involved, too, then it will be shot anew for the new version.

So, the above-mentioned French actress is dubbing movies so that they have a French-language soundtrack, while the video below shows a version of Hit the Road, Jack, nicely covered by Richard Anthony and some great back-up singers. I hope that it brings a smile to your quarantine day.  Scroll down for the English notes if you are so inclined–today we will talk about some idioms involving the verb to hit, as well as discuss American Evangelical beliefs about what’s going to happen to us sinners.

English notes: idioms involving the verb to hit

In the following examples, note that hit is an irregular verb: its present tense, past tense, and past participle are all hit.

to hit the books: to study.

I can’t go to the party tonight–I gotta hit the books.

Gotta is colloquial language for to have to.

to hit the road: to leave.

This has been a great party, but it’s time for me to hit the road–I gotta go study for my stupid linguistics exam.

to hit bottom: to reach a/the really terrible part of your life. It is often used in conjunction with alcoholics and drug addicts–the belief is that before you can get dry (alcoholics)/clean (drug addicts), you have to “hit bottom.”

God had left her alone with the sinners, so she would sin.  But, she hit bottom after going on a drunken binge with two men she met at a Catholic-sponsored conference on Poverty in the World of Change.  She woke up naked in a hotel bathtub.

The Forsaken, Book Two of The Apocalypse Trilogy.  This is an amusing series of American Protestant fundamentalist fiction about The Rapture, an event in which non-sinners will be whisked up to Heaven, while the rest of us are left on Earth.  (I think that we get damned to eternal Hell at some point.)  The extract is fascinating to me, in that in three short sentences it evokes so many of the tropes of American Protestant fundamentalism: anti-Catholicism, resistance to social services for the poor, and of course loathing of sex.

to hit the sack: to go to bed.

I’m gonna hit the sack–I’ll study for that stupid linguistics test tomorrow.

to hit the hay: to go to bed.

Well, Jack finally hit bottom. He went to the party, but he hit the road early to go home and hit the books.  But, instead, he hit the hay and didn’t study at all.  So, he flunked the test, which dropped his final grade in the course, which dropped his overall GPA, so he lost his badminton scholarship.  He went to his professor and asked him to raise his grade, but his professor said “Surely my course isn’t the only one in which you earned a lower grade than you needed?  Why not go to one of your other professors, and ask them to raise your grade?”  I guess you gotta hit bottom before you get sufficiently motivated as to get your shit together.

I have changed some details to protect the guilty.  But, yeah–I was the professor.





Prévert and Les mystères de Paris: Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.

Normalcy through vocabulary. And poetry.

The fact that covid-19 has 50% of the world’s population under lockdown orders does not change the fact that in the US, it is National Poetry Month.  The French are getting cats to play tic-tac-toe (le morpion in French, which also means [genital] crab, and I cannot stop giggling like a schoolboy about that), Americans are watching Netflix, and the President of the United States is showing himself more and more to be le roi des cons–and Art goes on.

Jacques Prévert’s poem Pater noster has opening lines as good as any in the world of free verse (translations by me, sorry):

Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there

Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie

And we’ll stay here on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris

With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris

So, yeah: the cool neighborhood near me is now empty except for the homeless people living under tarps in the sheltered doorways of now-abandoned shops, Macron is urging the French to support health-care workers, and Trump is urging Americans to support airlines; and I am trying to restore some sense of normalcy to my life by learning my usual 10 words of French vocabulary per day.

So, I’m on a French-language furniture web site the other day trying to find a picture of some obscure item of furniture or another that I ran across while reading Colette’s Chéri, when I came across this: the mystères de Paris.  Literally, that means “the mysteries of Paris”–but it means so, so much more…and thus we have the Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.

It turns out that there is such a thing as a mystères de Paris–and it is a commode.  Not a commode in the French sense of the word–what’s called in English a dresser–but a commode in the English sense of the word–a bedside chair with a receptacle for pooping.  A bedside toilet, if you will.  It’s not just any kind of commode, though:

  1. It’s a disguised commode.
  2. It is usually made to look like a stack of books.

From the web site (translations by me, sorry):

Ce siège d’aisance prend la forme d’une pile de livres simulés. La partie supérieure s’ouvre comme un abattant pour laisser apparaître la cuvette. Ce petit meuble repose sur des pieds bas tournés en balustre ou découpés.

Généralement, ce siège de commodité assez original était décoré de belles et luxueuses couleurs.

This commode takes the form of a pile of fake books. The upper part opens as a lid to access the bowl.  This small piece of furniture sits on feet that have been [not sure what those carpentry terms mean].

Typically, this rather unusual commode was decorated with pretty, luxurious colors.

Mystères de Paris bedside toilet. Source:

If you’ve followed this site, you know that Prévert’s poetry is great for understanding what people mean when they talk about “the impossibility of translation.” This is a great example–I just can’t even imagine a way to render mystères de Paris into English, and forget about maintaining that rhyme:

….sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie

…on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris

With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris

(Yes, jolie and Paris rhyme in French.)

A Dutch-made mystères de Paris bedside toilet from 1850. Source:

(Wait, I forgot–more tic-tac-toe-playing cats…)


So…let’s all stay in, stay healthy, thank the people working in the grocery stores, thank the people working in the gas stations, thank the doctors, thank the nurses, thank the respiratory therapists–and ignore les maîtres de ce monde, les maîtres avec leurs prêtres, leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres–a line from later in the poem that is more than evocative of the coronavirus-era Trump.  And let’s take care of each other.

See this post for the full poem, as well as for a discussion of the line that I just mentioned.  You can exercise your oral comprehension skills with an English-language video, complete with subtitles, on how to make your own face mask here.

Mystères de Paris bedside toilet. Source: