Navy Blue: One discourse, one sense? No.

I spent most of the 1980s in the US Navy.  The music that we were listening to in those days: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon.  But, the classics, too: In the Navy, Navy Blue… ay, matey, there’s the rub. 

There’s this thing called word sense ambiguity.  A “word sense” is a meaning, and many words have more than one; “word sense ambiguity” is the case of a word in context (as opposed to in the “lexicon,” or “mental dictionary”) having more than one possible sense.  In practice, a word in context has as many possible senses as there are for that word in the lexicon, so: many words are always going to be ambiguous.

Does that mean that it’s not possible to recover the correct sense?  Not at all.  In fact, humans are so good at “resolving” word sense ambiguity that we rarely notice that it’s there, even though we experience it almost constantly.  For computers, though–that’s a different story.  Word sense ambiguity is a problem for any computer program that tries to do things with language.  What to do?  Well, mostly, people try to get their programs to take advantage of context in some way.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 04.59.28
Gale, William A., Kenneth W. Church, and David Yarowsky. “One sense per discourse.” In Proceedings of the workshop on Speech and Natural Language, pp. 233-237. Association for Computational Linguistics, 1992.

Some approaches to this problem, known as word sense disambiguation, take advantage of what’s known as the one sense per discourse hypothesis.  Said hypothesis postulates that in any given discussion, an ambiguous word will only have one of its meanings.  So, if you can figure out that in a given conversation the word bank refers to the land along the side of a river, then you don’t even have to consider the meaning place where you keep money for the conversation as a whole.  Figure it out one time, and you’re done for the remainder of that “discourse.”

I spent most of the 1980s in the US Navy.  The music that we were listening to in those days: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon, Berlin.  But, the classics, too: In the Navy (Village People), Navy Blue (Diane Renay)… ay, matey, there’s the rub.  See, in the single song Navy Blue, there is a play on the word blue.  

Replace the crossed keys with a caduceus and that’s what my blues looked like at the end of my enlistment. Source:
  • navy or navy blue is a color.  It’s the color of what we call in the Navy our “dress blues,” which for enlisted men means the “Cracker Jack” uniform, which in fact is a hell of a lot more black than it is blue–but, whatever.
  • blue means something like mildly sad, mildy depressed.  In French, a rough equivalent of the phrase to be blue or to have the blues would be avoir le cafard.  

One discourse, two senses: a counter-example to the one sense per discourse hypothesis.

To be fair, I should point out that Gale et al. never claimed that the one sense per discourse hypothesis was an absolute–it’s more of a heuristic.  They reported it to be true 98% of the time or so–but, not always.  Still: I must point out the shameful lack of attention to Diane Renay’s #6 hit in their classic paper.  For shame, for shame, for shame.

Here’s a link to the song.  Scroll down for the full lyrics with explanations of some of the obscure military terminology and terms of romance, and don’t forget to buy a sailor a drink today–he’s serving his country, unlike, say, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump…


Navy Blue

Sung by Diane Renay, lyrics by Bob Crewe, Bud Rehak, and Edward Fluri

Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
  • steady boy: old term for boyfriend with whom you have an exclusive relationship.
  • ship ahoy: old mariner’s term used to hail a ship
He said he wanted to settle down
And let me be his girl 
But first he had to do a little travelin’ around
And see the whole wide world
  • to settle down: to establish a permanent residence
  • girl: in this context, ‘girlfriend’
That’s why I’m
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
I got a letter yesterday from Tokyo
And a souvenir
A walky-talky wind-up little China doll
That says “Wish you were here”
  • wish you were here: stereotypical text written on a postcard when you’re too lazy to write anything substantive
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
He’s comin’ home to see me on a weekend pass
A forty-eight hour day
That boat he’s sailin’ on just better get here fast
‘Cause I can hardly wait
  • pass: permission, sometimes written, for a military person to take time off.  A weekend pass is from Friday evening to Sunday evening–also known as a “48,” although that doesn’t have to be on a weekend.  A “96” is a 4-day pass.
  • day in this song is sometimes transcribed as day-ate, i.e. date, giving the line the meaning of a rencard galant of 48 hours.
Till then I’m
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
Paroliers : Bob Crewe / Bud Rehak / Edward Fluri
Paroles de Navy Blue © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Châteaux forts: How do French children learn vocabulary?

How do you learn vocabulary in a language with gender if the gender is not marked?

The Christmas holidays took me to the Loire Valley.  That’s an area that’s famous for chateaus (châteaux,, and that meant new vocabulary–Zipf’s Law and all that…

…which brings me to a mystery: how are French kids supposed to learn new words correctly when the graphics, diagrams, and the like from which they learn them don’t include the genders of the words?  In this post I’ve included four pictures showing terminology related to châteux forts–what we call “castles” in English.  Notice that in only one of the four is the gender of the words marked, and even in that diagram the gender is marked only inconsistently–gender is given here by the form of the definite article, and for terms that are given in the plural (les douves, the moats; les créneaux, crenellations; and les remparts, ramparts), you can’t tell the gender from the definite article.



Chateau fort de coucy


Source: (great page, BTW)





This is not just an idiosyncracy of medieval vocabulary for castles–it’s a very general phenomenon in French-language educational materials.  For example, here’s a diagram of a representative insect from Le grand livre marabout de la nature, edited by Fanny Delahaye:


…a representative bird from the 2004 version of Le petit Larousse compact:

…and one from the 3rd edition of Pierre Kamina’s Petit atlas d’anatomie:

…a non-representative sample chosen by scanning my bookshelf for educational materials with diagrams in them.

How about it, native speakers?  (Phil d’Ange, I’m lookin’ at you…)  How does a French student learn vocabulary without having the gender of the terms listed on diagrams that are intended to teach them?  Concretely: you’re a kid.  You’ve got a diagram like the ones shown on this page, and you need to learn the terms thereon.  How do you do so, given that the gender is not labelled?

English vocabulary

Idiosyncracy: From Merriam-Webster: a peculiarity of constitution or temperament; an individualizing characteristic or quality .  First known use: 1604.  Other words first observed in that year: appreciation, black eye, blotch, and chinchilla.


Ducklings and goslings and inklings, oh my

That moment when the elves take your baby and leave one of theirs in its place.

I dragged myself out of bed at 8:30 AM today.  Under normal circumstances, if I’m still in bed at 5:45 AM, it means that I had a rough night–I am most definitely both a morning person, and an early riser.  Seulement voilà (“the thing is”):

  1. At this time of year, it doesn’t get light outside in Paris until about 8:30 in the morning.
  2. At 2 AM I got obsessed with the need to learn all of the words for baby animals in French.

Morphemes are the things that words are made of.  For example, the plural cats has two morphemes: cat, and the that carries the meaning of plurality.  (This happens to be the example from which my child learned what a morpheme is–as a young child, and as we did the dishes together.  Must suck to be a linguist’s kid…)

English has an odd little morpheme that refers to things that are small.  Like the of cats, it is what is called a bound morpheme, meaning that it cannot be a word on its own–it has to be attached to something else.  (Contrast that with the cat in catnap (a short, light nap), catnip (a plant–it’s basically pot for cats), and cathouse (a brothel–archaic)).  Here are a couple of examples:

  • duckling: a baby duck.
  • inkling: a small hint, or a small piece of knowledge.  (I’ll give some examples of its use later.)
Source:  See the site for helpful information about how to recognize a foundling, return a foundling, etc.

The -ling morpheme is also not productive: that means that you can’t really use it freely to make “new words.”  For example, it’s not clear that anyone would know what you meant if you casually threw the words waterling (parallel to inkling) or penling (parallel to duckling) into a conversation.  (Contrast that with -gate, which over the course of my lifetime has become applicable to practically anything, with the meaning of “a scandal related to:” Bridgegate, Pizzagateetc.)  Because it’s not productive, one could list all of the words in English in which it occurs.  Limited only by my memory, of course.  My best shot at doing so:

  1. duckling: baby duck
  2. gosling: baby goose
  3. foundling: a child who has been found after having been abandoned
  4. changeling: when the elves take away your baby and leave one of their own in its place
  5. inkling: a small hint, idea, trace, piece of knowledge, clue

In the Foundling Hospital grounds, London, c1901 (1901)
The London Foundling Hospital in 1901, from an article about a 1911 foundling lottery in Paris at

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Zipf, you’re a drooling idiot.  There are lots of words in English that end with -ling: for example, DROOLING.  Feeling, wheeling and dealing (French: mic-mac or micmac), healing… 

Well… I may be an idiot, but I’m not a drooling one.  Here’s the thing: a morpheme is defined by its sound (or spelling)–in our case, ling–and by its meaning.  Drooling and gosling (baby goose) contain the same sounds/letters, but not the same meaning of smallness, so it’s not the case that they share the same morpheme.  -ling is a pretty textbook (French: typique) example of a non-productive morpheme.

So, yeah: I don’t sleep much, and I’m trying to learn to speak French, so at 2 AM I got obsessed with learning the names of baby animals in French.  This web page got me started, and then I started searching for weird English-language baby animal names (say, gosling), and here you see the results.  (Yes, some occur more than once.) At 2 AM, I only knew chiot (puppy), chaton (kitten), and veau (calf)–how about you?  And, native speakers (Phil d’Ange, I’m lookin’ at you)–can you add some more?

Adult animals:

Juvenile animals:

English-language example sentences


  • The Steel Riders Saga is a sci-fi/fantasy novel about Free Wheeler, a foundling discovered by the legendary Steve Thompson during a deep terrain ATV ride. Thompson leads an ATV pack known as the “Steel Riders.” In their fantastical journeys Free Wheeler finds true love and home.  (Twitter, @quantum_tide)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia, there’s a National . I have never heard of anything so glorious! (Nobody in my family cares about gravy as much as I do. I… might be a foundling?)  (Twitter,
  • Can I just say…Baby Faced Finster. A foundling!! You Naughty Baby!! Hahaha! 😂❤️  (Twitter, @TheSuperAmanda)


  • I’ve mentioned this numerous times on the podcast but… I have an inkling that Nintendo will use Smash DLC to promote upcoming (inc third-party) Switch releases.  (Twitter, @pixelpar)
  • My new resolution is to not read the thread of comments of tweets where I know or have an inkling that it’s not going to be a good thing.  (Twitter, @valparkie)
  • You are a gem of a friend and you don’t have an inkling of how much i appreciate your ignorance of my vices.  (Twitter, @Shakti_Shetty)
  • I don’t have an inkling of what the future holds but I’m excited  (Twitter, @JaredTench)
  • Roommate, Camden *going to Waffle House in Dunn*: “If I get the smallest inkling of a crack-whore, I’m leaving!”  (Twitter, @dr_pattyguin)


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…