Gratuitous picture of me and my cat

In which I can’t even get beyond the Introduction.

Your lexicon–the words that you know, and what you know about them–is unlike every other part of your knowledge of your native language in that it continues to grow over the course of your entire life.  By the time you’re a young child you know pretty much everything that you’re going to know about your language’s phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax.  Your lexicon, though–that continues to grow throughout your life.

Now imagine someone who tries to learn a second language as an adult.  Like everyone else who speaks that language, you’re going to be learning new words until you die.  But, that’s going to be a lot more obvious to you than it is to people who speak it natively, because unlike them, you didn’t spend your entire youth learning the vocabulary of that language–start studying a language in your 50s, and you are literally 50 years behind a native speaker when it comes to learning the lexicon of the language in question.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that you don’t have to work very hard to find words that you don’t know: Zipf’s Law, which describes the fact that a small number of words of a language are very, very common, while the rest occur only very rarely–but do occur–ensures that you will be running across new words just going about your daily life.

Living in France, I have no difficulty whatsoever running into 10 words that I don’t know every single day.  Ads on the metro, the services written on a window installer’s truck, the name of a street that I walk by on the way to the lab–that’s all it takes.  Living in the US, it’s a bit harder, but it’s totally doable–listening to the radio, watching something on YouTube, or listening to a book on tape will do it.  10 words a day, every day (except the month of December, which I spend reviewing the words that I learned from January to November), and mine de rien, you have a vocabulary of thousands of words.

And yet: as Zipf’s Law would suggest, I still have no problem whatsoever finding 10 new words a day to learn.  Case in point: today I wanted to figure out what the symbol ≠ means in the grammar book that I’m working through at the moment (Grammaire progressive du français : niveau perfectionnement, B2 – C2, by Maïa Grégoire and Alina Kostucki).  So, I went to the “front matter” of the book–the table of contents and stuff like that.  This involved reading the Introduction, where I ran across the following: found me most of the relevant definitions, and yet: dictionaries being the beautiful but imperfect things that they are (like, say, my cat), it did let me down for a couple words: relever, and mécanisation. To wit:

….même avec un vocabulaire riche et une bonne connaissance de la grammaire, les résultats atteints son souvent entravés par la persistance de fautes qui ont traversé les différents niveaux d’apprentissage. Bon nombre de ces difficultés tiennent à des interférences avec la langue d’origine et aucune grammaire ” générale ” ne peut prétendre en rendre compte.  D’autres, en revanche, relèvent de particularités de de la langue française, mal perçues par les étudiants, et que nous tentons d’exposer de la façon la plus claire possible.

My best guess for an English-language equivalent of relever de would be “to arise from.”  Here are some examples of to arise from from Word Sketch, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them:

  • The lectures focus on topics arising from research in science and technology.
  • The investigation arose from a referral from both Houses of the NSW Parliament.  (Arise is an irregular verb, with the past tense form arose.)
  • He blames Jews for the ills arising from the industrial revolution, e.g., class divisions and hatred.
  • Leukaemias are devastating diseases of the haemopoietic system that arise from aberrant stem or progenitor cells.  (Leukaemia and haemopoietic are the British English spellings of leukemia and hemopoietic.)

But: looking at WordReference, I don’t see to arise from as a possible translation of relever de, or vice versa.  Phil d’Ange?

The other problem word: la mécanisation.  The only translation of this word in Word Reference is…”mechanization”!  What that means: I can only guess (see above about how your lexicon grows over the course of your entire life), and none of my guesses would make sense in this context.  Mechanized infantry is infantry equipped with armored vehicles to move itself around, and mechanized artillery is artillery equipped with its own transport system, but oral mechanization, as in the sample from my book?  I haven’t the faintest clew.  (That’s “clue,” for us Americans–something about the faintest clew just demands that you spell it like a Brit.)

À la partie théorique, située sur la page de gauche, correspond, sur la page de droite, une présentation en contexte (parfois illustrée) des points de grammaire, et une série d’exercices de réemploi : exercices à trous, transformations, mécanisation orale, écrit.



Native speakers: can you show an anglophone some love?  (To show someone some love means to help them, to do something nice for them, to give them something.  Super-slangy.)


Finally, here is a gratuitous picture of a fat old bald guy and his cat Keiko.  As you can tell from the amount of light in the dwelling, the photo was taken in America, not in wintertime Paris.  The teddy bear on the floor is the property of my cat, and I suggest that you not touch it.

Conflict of interest statement: I have no conflicts of interest to declare.  I pay for a subscription to Sketch Engine, I bought the book, and Word Reference is free to one and all.

I am the walrus, Part I

Let’s do the obvious thing: talk about French vocabulary related to walruses.

It’s 4 AM where I am, and I’m awake and definitely not getting back to sleep, and for the first time in several weeks I have no looming deadlines, so let’s do the obvious thing: talk about French vocabulary related to walruses.

le morse: walrus

First of all: what are they?  From Wikipédia:

Le morse (Odobenus rosmarus) est une espècede grands mammifères marins, unique représentant actuel de son genreOdobenus, ainsi que de sa famille, celle des Odobenidae.

  • le mammifère: mammal.
  • le représentant/la représentante: representative.

Marine mammals (mammifères marins) are anatomically unusual for a number of reasons, one of which is their teeth: in general, they tend to be homodonts, meaning that their teeth are all of the same kind.  Walruses have their tusks, which are very different from the rest, but the rest of their teeth are pretty much undifferentiated.  Here’s a photo of a walrus mandible–note that the teeth are all pretty similar:

Source: Mike Peel,

Here’s a nice in-your-face photo of the dentition of a more familiar marine mammal, the dolphin–note that they’re all the same:


…and another marine mammal, the orca or killer whale (go ahead and try to find a better picture than this of orca teeth without spending 15 minutes plowing through memorabilia of the movie Jaws–go ahead, I dare you…). Like the dolphin, this fellow is a total homodont–all of his teeth are the same:

Orca skull. Source:

…and compare those with the teeth of some non-marine mammals. Your garden-variety mammal is a heterodont, and has up to four kinds of specialized teeth: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars.


So, you compare a morse to your typical mammifère marin and they look well-endowed in the tooth variety department, but compare ’em to a primate or a feline and they look pretty impoverished.  And what are those tusks (défenses) for?

On a longtemps supposé que ces défenses étaient utilisées pour déterrer les proies des fonds marins. Mais l’étude de l’abrasion des défenses indique que celles-ci traînent simplement dans les sédiments lorsque le bord supérieur du museau est utilisé pour creuser, et qu’elles ne s’usent alors que dans leur partie supérieure28. Les individus aux défenses cassées peuvent donc continuer à s’alimenter23.

  • déterrer: to extract, unearth, dig up; to exhume.
  • le fond marin: seafloor.
  • traîner: a verb that never fails to fuck me up… I think that in this case it’s the sense of dragging (Je traîne la table dans la pièce voisine, or of hanging down to a lower level (Les rideaux traînent sur le sol de la salle,  I have a lot of trouble with traîner, which I associate always and only with what you should not do when there are zombies around (Traînez pas, y’a des zombies partout (sorry if the French is wrong–I just made that up).).
  • le sédiment: …just ’cause I didn’t know about the accent, nor the gender.
  • creuser: another one of those verbs that has a thousand senses.  I think that this is the one that WordReference gives as “to dig,” although I think that it might be closer to to furrow.  Do you creuser a hole, or something longer in one direction than the other, like a sillon, or a creux, or a fossé? Native speakers?
  • s’user: …because this verb is so confusing for us poor anglophones: it means to get worn out, worn down, worn thin.
  • s’alimenter: …just ’cause it’s such a pretty verb, and I wanna remind myself to use it.

…and with that, it’s 5:20 AM, and my sleep deprivation is nearing psychosis-level, and I’m definitely not getting back to sleep, and my sleep deprivation is nearing psychosis-level, and I couldn’t get the pictures of walrus-calf teeth to upload (they have deciduous (“milk”) teeth, which makes for a very confusing picture, and how the fuck do you say “milk teeth” in French?), and my sleep deprivation is nearing psychosis-level, and we haven’t even gotten around to the walrus’s wrist structure, and my sleep deprivation is nearing psychosis-level, and je laisse à part les fièvres et les pleurésies, et…

Comment parler à un alien ?

Aliens land. How do you communicate with them? Read this book on language and linguistics in science fiction by Roland Lehoucq.

I got this message this morning via an email list for francophone specialists in natural language processing, the use of computers to do things with language.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll probably find it interesting, and it has some grammatical constructions and vocabulary items that I don’t understand, so if you’re an anglophone reader, you might learn something from it, as I did… I’ve interspersed my comments with the text of the email, and the vocabulary notes show up at the end of the post, after the email.

 Date: Thu, 18 Oct 2018 11:25:52 +0200
From: Frederic Landragin <>
Message-ID: <>

Chers collègues,Le livre “Comment parler à un alien ? Langage et linguistique dans la
science-fiction” vient de paraître aux éditions du Bélial’, dans la
collection de vulgarisation “Parallaxe”, dirigée par Roland Lehoucq.

Is the family name Lehoucq composed of le + houcq? Not as far as I can tell—I haven’t found dictionary entries for houcq, houc, or houq.  If it is, indeed, so composed, apparently the h of houcq was an h aspiré, or we would see l’houcq, right??

Imaginez : les extraterrestres sont là ! Sur Terre. À côté de chez
vous… Et d’emblée se pose la question cruciale qui accompagne
l’extraordinaire événement : comment leur parler ? Comment s’en faire
comprendre ? Le langage sera sans doute d’une importance cruciale. La
science-fiction, domaine réflexif par essence, l’a compris depuis ses
origines et en a fait l’un de ses sujets de prédilection, tant au cinéma
qu’en littérature, de “Babel 17” à “Premier Contact”, de
“L’Enchâssement” aux “Langages de Pao”.

This paragraph contains lots of instances of that pronimal bugaboo of us anglophones, en. S’en faire comprendre: where does that en come from?  Is it an anaphor for “by them”?  Native speakers?  The en of La science fiction…en a fait l’un de ses sujets de predilection seems straightforward-ish: I think it refers back to le langage in the preceding sentence.  (By the way: most computer programs for “resolving” anaphora would get this one wrong, basically because they typically don’t look as far back as the beginning of a preceding sentence, or if they do, they tend to prefer to guess that the referent is at the end of the preceding sentence, if there is a candidate (in this case, une importance cruciale) at the end of the preceding sentence as well as one at the beginning. 

Sommaire :
– Avant-propos
– Introduction
– Chapitre 1 : De la science-fiction à la linguistique-fiction
– Chapitre 2 : Origine et évolution des langues naturelles
– Chapitre 3 : Des langues artificielles, mais pour quoi faire
– Chapitre 4 : Les éléments constitutifs d’une langue
– Chapitre 5 : Premier contact avec des extraterrestres
– Anticipons !
– Notes,  – Bibliographie

What does pour quoi faire mean in the title of Chapter 3?  I have no idea.  If it’s “why make artificial languages,” wouldn’t that be pourquoi en faire ? As I said: en really screws up us anglophones…

La collection : la parallaxe est un changement de perception de notre
environnement dû à un changement de point de vue. En utilisant le
“cognitive estrangement”, la science-fiction observe notre monde sous un
angle différent et l’interroge. L’ambition de la collection Parallaxe
est de montrer qu’il est possible de faire un détour par l’imaginaire
pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde.

Question: as far as I know, French—unlike English, where it’s possible but definitely optional–generally repeats the preposition when there’s a conjoined phrase “to talk about science and understand our world”); if I’m right about that, then why does the paragraph contain pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde, rather than pour parler de sciences et pour comprendre notre monde, which is what I would have expected?

Bien cordialement,
Frédéric Landragin.

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French vocabulary:

 enchâssement: encastrement dans une châsse (

The English translation of this word on WordReference makes no sense to me, but I never pass up an opportunity to use the word châsse. 

encastrement: insertion d’un objet dans un autre ( Nous avons opté pour l’encastrement de l’électro-ménager dans les meubles de notre cuisine. (Example sentence also from WordReference)

 The English translation on WordReference seems right for their example sentence, but not for their French-language definition of enchâssement.  Maybe châsse has a meaning besides the one that I know, which is a synonym of reliquaire?  Not according to WordReference, whose English-language translation is, once again, at odds with their French-language definition: the French-language definition is coffret pour reliques précieuses, but they translate châsse into English as shrine, when it should be reliquary.    



Vocabulary makeover, please

Zipf’s Law: The frequency of a word is related exponentially to its rank in a frequency-ordered list. Practically speaking, this means that an adult studying a second language will run across words that they don’t know every day of their life.

To paraphrase Newton: if I speak better French than other Americans, it is only because I spend more time memorizing vocabulary.  My daily, daily, daily morning ritual: with my first cigarette and cup of coffee, I memorize 10 new words.  Zipf’s Law being what it is, I don’t exactly have to go hunting for words that I don’t know—over the course of the day, I note down every new word that I come across, and the next morning, I pick 10 of them to cram into the small amount of remaining space in my much-abused brain.

My go-to dictionaries are, followed by the Farlex French dictionary app.  If I’m pretty sure that I need more context, I go to the Sketch Engine web site if I have Internet access, and Linguee if I don’t.  Pretty straightforward, my little routine.  Quotidian.  Mundane.

Every once in a while, though, it does not yield the desired result.  Case in point: capillotracté.  Not in Word Reference, not in Farlex French.  So: Google… which gets me definitions that I don’t understand, because they make reference to an expression that I don’t understand: tirer quelqu’un par les cheveux.  And so, dear Readers: can you help an amerloque out?

My odyssey started in a place where you don’t expect to see casual use of language: Le Figaro.  The Fig’ is one of the Big 3 French newspapers, along with Libération (left) and Le Monde (center).  As you have probably guessed, Le Figaro is to the right of center.  Like many conservative people, it gets excited about prescribing language usage.  I don’t get excited about prescribing language usage, but I do get excited about language, so although I subscribe to Le Monde (I’m a lefty myself, but I figure that I’ll get the most representative sample of vocabulary more towards the center)I will often go to the Fig’ to read its language articles.  As you might expect from prescriptivists, they tend to be…precise.  Clear.  Unambiguous.  (Si ce n’est pas clair, ce n’est pas français, right?  Harumph.).

So, I’m reading an article on the subject of how to refer to Line 1 of the Paris metro—ligne un, or ligne une?—when I come across a word that I don’t know. I promptly copy it, along with the context in which I saw it, onto an index card (something that does not exist in France–see this post on the mystery):

The next morning, I go to look it up–and find nothing. Word Reference: no love. The Farlex French dictionary app: nope. Fine–I go to Google. I find definitions there, but they all refer to an expression whose meaning is opaque to me: tirer quelqu’un par les cheveux. For example:



How about it, native speakers?  Can you help an amerloque out?  I’d pull my hair out over this, but I’m already bald…

The rule dit capillotracté?  Ligne un, because it’s a number, not the indefinite article.  The indefinite article un/une is inflected for gender, but the number un is not.

French notes

l’amerloque: American, person or language; noun or adjective. Familier et péjoratif.  Wiktionnaire alleges that it comes from Amérique plus oque, providing no evidence; I therefore claim equal plausibility for my own little theory, which is that it comes from Amérique plus locuteur.  Examples from Wiktionnaire, from which I stole them quite gleefully ’cause I don’t like their etymology:

  • […] mais c’est pas un spectacle pour une dame, rigola le jeunot à la casquette amerloque. — (Léo MaletLes rats de Montsouris, 1955)
  • Nom de Dieu, quand est-ce que tu vas arrêter de parler l’amerloque ? — (Sébastien Monod, Rue des Deux Anges, 2005)

English notes

makeover: “An overall treatment to improve something or make something more attractive or appealing.” (Source: American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved September 11 2018 from  There is an enormous quantity of makeover-themed TV shows.  Don’t judge me.

consult (noun): As a noun, this is stressed on the first syllable: CONsult.  consult is when you send someone or something to an expert, typically in a medical context.  For example, if you go to your doctor and they are pretty sure that you are having a neurological problem, they might tell their clerk to set you up with a neurology consult.  

In coming up with a title for this article, I thought about Vocabulary consult versus Vocabulary makeover.  The former would make a hell of a lot more sense, but since the word that I’m asking you to help me with has something to do with hair, I went for Vocabulary makeover.  Don’t like my choice?  Write your own fucking blog on the implications of the statistical properties of language for second-language learners.

to pull one’s hair out (over something): to have reached the point of frustration with a problem and still be unable to solve it.  Examples:

Bill, can you help me?  I’m pulling my hair out here… Every time I call the constructor, I get a “String Index Out Of Bounds” error, which makes no sense to me whatsoever…   

Dude, I’m pulling out my hair out over this budget. Every time I try to include the annual COL increase for salaries, the spreadsheet doubles the amount allotted for travel to the American Medical Informatics Association annual meeting. What the FUCK?? 

How I used it in the post: How about it, native speakers?  Can you help an amerloque out?  I’d pull my hair out over this, but I’m already bald…

Marde…and Kraft Dinner

I don’t even wanna think about what’s in that orange powder, but the stuff is strangely tasty.

Being the North American that I am, you would think that my French would be sprinkled with Canadianisms.  Not really: there are some words that I learned from Québécois and can’t seem not to pronounce like them–poussiaire when I should be saying poussière, lampadaillere when I should be saying lampadaire, and drette when I should be saying…well, actually I don’t know how to say drette in hexagonal French, which is why I say it in Québécois.  Some little stuff like that, but otherwise, you wouldn’t take me for a Canadian–ever.  (Well, there was this one incident on the métro… another time, perhaps.)

One exception to the general non-Canadianness of my (feeble) French: marde.  As an expletive, merde in Québec is…marde.  Why?  No clue.  Why is it what comes out of my mouth if I spill my coffee, drop my vocabulary flashcards on the RER B, or notice that I left my laundry in the washing machine overnight and now they’re moldy as fuck?  Also no clue.  But, if you wanna hear marde straight outta (outta explained in the English notes below) the mouth of an autochtone, you won’t find anything better than a recording of Québécoise superstar Lisa Leblanc.  She has a delightful accent–I believe from Newfoundland, given her pronunciation of words like gars as “guh.”  There are approximately one bazillion YouTube videos of her singing this song; I like this one because of her backup singers.  Linguistic mystery: why connes and not cons in

A matin mon lit simple fait sûr de me rappeler que je dors dans un lit simple avec les springs qui m’enfoncent dans le dos // Comme des connes…

…or maybe I’m just hearing it wrong?  Phil dAnge?  In any case: enjoy Lisa LeBlanc’s Ma vie c’est de la marde, and then scroll down to the English notes for a discussion of outta, plus a special bonus explanation of Kraft Dinner.  Why?  Keep reading, keep reading…


English notes

outta: an informal spoken form of “out of.”  Click here for a good video about how to use it.  It’s not typically written, but if it is, it’ll be o-u-t-t-a.  

Kraft Dinner: a disgusting but completely delicious kind of macaroni and cheese.  You buy it in a box, boil the pasta, sprinkle an envelope of orange powder on it, throw in some butter and some milk… I don’t even wanna think about what’s in that orange powder, but the stuff is strangely tasty, and at 25 cents a box the last time I checked (which was probably the last time that I could only afford 25 cents for dinner), you can live on it for surprisingly long.  Why it’s relevant to us today: it’s the title of a truly lovely Lisa LeBlanc song.

Au pire on vivra ensemble // En mangeant du Kraft Dinner // C’est tout ce qu’on a besoin…


Want to learn to speak Québécois?  Free lessons hereHilarious, and actually pretty helpful…

Amazing two-headed baby

What would a linguist say about it? Pretty much nothing.

Getting divorced mostly sucks (speaking from experience here–I do it a lot), but it does have one good side: you clean your basement.  Picking through old files from my days of teaching Linguistics 101, I found this old photo from the cover of the National Enquirer, a tabloid that you flip through while waiting in line at the grocery store and then occasionally buy despite yourself.

I found the headline interesting because it touches on a couple of recurrent themes in the history of thought about language, but goes in an unusual direction with it.  The themes:

  • The original language
  • Language deprivation experiments

The original language

There is a very long history of wondering what the original language was.  The top candidate in the various and sundry ravings about this is Hebrew.  Why?  It’s the language of the Bible (specifically, the Old Testament to those of you who are Christianically inclined).  Latin often comes up, too.

What would a linguist say about the question?  Pretty much nothing.  From the Hominidé web site:

Depuis le 17e siècle la question se posait : depuis quand l’homme utilisait-il le langage articulé ? De nombreuses théories ont été avancées dont certaines très farfelues (voir ci-contre). En 1866 la Société de Linguistique de Paris (fondée en 1864) mit un coup d’arrêt à ces tentatives fantaisistes et interdit tout simplement la publication de textes relatifs à l’origine du langage.

My translation: Since the 17th century, the question has been asked: from when have humans used spoken language?  Numerous theories have been advanced, some of which are quite nutty (or even French French French [too lazy to look up ci-contre on a Saturday morning]).  In 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris (founded in 1864) French French French [see preceding bracketed statement] and completely forbad (forbade?) the publication of papers on the origin of language.

Why forbid study of the origin of language?  Because your theories are not testable, and if something is not at least in theory testable, it’s not science.  Linguists are not even certain that language originated just once–one explanation that has been advanced for the astounding variability in human languages is the polygenesis hypothesis, which proposes that language originated multiple times in different human(-ish) populations.  (The single-origin hypothesis is the monogenesis hypothesis.)  Hell, we’re not even certain that language originated in spoken form–it could well have been signed.  (Yes: signed languages are languages, like any other.)


Language deprivation experiments

The idea behind a language deprivation experiment is to deny children exposure to language and see what happens.  I’m not totally convinced that any of the reported language deprivation experiments (see some listed on this Wikipedia page) actually ever happened, but their stated motivations frequently include the belief that children who are not exposed to any language would spontaneously speak “the original language,” and guess what?  Latin is often reported as one of the anticipated tongues.

Language deprivation tragedies

In fact there is a depressing number of cases in which children actually have been deprived of exposure to language, either through mishap or through horrific criminal misdeeds.  What doesn’t happen when they’re rescued: they don’t speak Hebrew; neither do they speak Latin.  They don’t speak anything, and if they’re rescued too late, they never do.  (This is often taken as evidence supporting the critical period hypothesis about child language acquisition.)

The weird direction in which the National Enquirer takes their story

…is that they talk not about children who are old enough to have acquired language, but rather babies; they then take the kid-speaks-Latin phenomenon as a way to talk about proof of reincarnation.  Not unheard of (see here and here, and here), but not run-of-the-mill, either.

There’s that part of me that wants to talk about the role of two-headed babies in the history of genetics, but my breakfast ice cream is melting, so we’ll have to wait for another time…  Breakfast ice cream–yum…

English and French notes:

despite oneself: En dépit de soi-même, I think.  …tous mes efforts sont vains, je t’adore en dépit de moi-même.  (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse, which I am reading at the moment and find hilarious.)

to suck: a borderline vulgar way of saying to be bad in the sense of undesirable.  I ran across craindre un max as a French-language equivalent once, but nobody seems to recognize that when I say it.

to forbid: a super-irregular verb.  In French: interdire, I think.  (Man, I am really lazy today…)  From the web site (and I don’t buy forbid as a past participle at all, although once again, I’m too lazy today to look for actual evidence):

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 11.51.45
Source: web site




Cabinet of Curiosities: Buying non-touristy stuff in Paris

The most common questions that people ask me about life in Paris:

  1. How come nobody in Paris speaks English?  (How come explained in the English notes below.)
  2. How come whenever I try to speak to people in Paris in French, they always answer me in English?
  3. Aren’t you afraid of terrorist attacks?
  4. Where can I buy non-touristy souvenirs?

(1) and (2) are, of course, contradictory, and I’ve written about them before (and will again, ’cause it’s super-complicated).  I’ve written about (3), too, and no, I’m not–every 3 days in the US, we have more gunfire deaths than Paris had in its worst terrorist attack in history.  I literally have a greater chance of being shot to death in a road rage incident on my way to work in the US than I do of dying in a terrorist attack in Paris.  Seriously.

(4): a question that I love to answer.  Today I’ll tell you where to buy non-touristy souvenirs in Montmartre.

Before there were museums, there was the cabinet of curiosities–le cabinet de curiosités.  If you were powerful, or maybe just really rich, your cabinet of curiosities was where you showed off your collection of … interesting stuff.  Mostly stuff from the natural world.  A narwhal’s tusk, say; rare stones; perhaps some fossils.  Showing it off was the point.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The Kunstkammer (cabinet of curiosities) of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (ruled 1576–1612), housed in the Hradschin at Prague, was unrivalled north of the Alps; it provided a solace and retreat for contemplation[3] that also served to demonstrate his imperial magnificence and power in symbolic arrangement of their display, ceremoniously presented to visiting diplomats and magnates.[4]

Montmartre is a neighborhood in the northern part of Paris.  As you might expect from the name Montmartre, it has an elevation, and at the peak of that elevation is one of Paris’s most popular tourist attractions: Sacré Coeur, “Sacred Heart,” France’s way of saying it’s sorry that Paris seceded from it in 1871.

I jest–bitterly: Sacré Coeur expresses France’s wish that Paris would say that it’s sorry that it seceded in 1871.  Sacré Coeur is reactionary France’s way of putting words in Paris’s mouth–specifically, an apology for having seceded from France in 1871.  As if it weren’t enough that the Versaillais (the soldiers of the national government) killed 20,000-ish Parisians when they retook the city.  La semaine sanglante, it’s called–The Bloody Week.

img_5991Descending from the aforementioned elevation on a Sunday-afternoon walk the other day, I came across Grégory Jacob and a truly delightful place to buy non-touristy stuff in Montmartre.  Curiositas is a charming little store in the style of a 19th-century cabinet of curiosities, complete with a nice selection of marlin snouts–far more practical in a little Parisian apartment than a narwhal tusk, and just as pointed.

Grégory spent 20 years as an optician before the insurance companies sucked the joy out of the profession, at which point he decided to become a boutiquier (see the French notes below for some subtleties of the terminology of shop-owners) and opened Curiositas.  His new profession lets him pursue his passions–la chine, la brocante, les curiosités, l’ostéologie, l’entomologie–in the very neighborhood where Gabriel loses his glasses and delivers his monologue in Zazie dans le métro.  

Picture source:

And all of those passions are represented–the wares on offer include skulls, bugs, and the super-cool apparatus for drinking absinthe.  (Who knew that there are nifty devices for holding the sugar cube over which you pour la fée verte, “the green fairy”–absinthe itself.  Hell, I didn’t even know that you pour it over a sugar cube.  Hell, again: I didn’t even know that they still make the stuff.)  You need coasters with anatomical organs on them?  Grégory’s got them.  An emu egg?  No problem.  Skulls?  Curiositas has both carnivores and herbivores.  You’re tired of the Montmartre crêpe shops, wannabe artists, and fabric stores?  Step into Curiositas.  Tell Grégory the weird American guy says hi.  Scroll down past the pictures for the English and French notes.

How to prepare absinthe. Picture source: By Eric Litton – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

English notes 

how come: an informal way of saying why.  Examples:




“Trex” is “T-rex,” Tyrannosaurus rex. The dinosaur with enormous fangs and tiny little arms.

French notes

le boutiquier :  shopkeeper.

le commerçant : shopkeeper, retailer.

le magasinier : l’employé qui s’occupe d’entreposer, ranger des marchandises dans un entrepôt. (Definition courtesy of Grégory)