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AWADmail Issue 349

Mar 8, 2009

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Language

From: George Jacoby (gjacoby sc.rr.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--bon ton
Def: 1. Good form or style. 2. Something regarded as fashionably right. 3. High society.

Years back (60s & early 70s) when I lived in New Orleans we used to go to the Bon Ton Cafe. Later, we would go to the French Quarter and "Laissez les bons temps rouler."

From: Terry Moran (t.moran new.oxon.org)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--au fait
Def: Being well-informed or skillful in something.

While au fait is now a standard expression in English, and it obviously comes from French, in France it means something different: incidentally, by the way. Oddly, the French for the English term au fait is au courant.

There are other examples of this phenomenon. The standard word in English for a street that has a dead end is cul-de-sac. This apparently still exists in French, but I've never heard it: people always say (voie) sans issue, a road with no exit.

I could go on. The German for "happy ending" is Happy End, also the title of a Weill/Brecht musical comedy. And where on earth did the Germans get Handy for cellphone? Material for a thesis, surely ...

From: Don Fearn (pooder charter.net)
Subject: au fait

Physics Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman was also an artist, and he signed his drawings Ofey and I often wondered if he meant that as "au fait".

From: Don Vaughn (dvaughn gei-sd.com)
Subject: au fait/o fay

Your pronunciation guide for today's term "o fay" recalled an inside term used for decades by African-Americans in the south. "Ofay" is a derogatory term for a white person. It has an interesting and varied etymology according to the different dictionaries I consulted. I haven't heard it in a long time. I would that all derogatory terms should become equally as rare.

From: Richard Novick (richard.novick med.nyu.edu)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--clou
Def: A major point of interest, or a central idea.

An interesting use of the word in France is in reference to a very small chanterelle (Cantherellus cibarius, aka girolle) mushroom; since chanterelles are so highly sought in France, they often get picked when they are barely out of the ground, looking like small golden nails.

From: Shweta Bhat (shweta.bhat2 in.bosch.com)
Subject: German as a foreign language

This week's theme brought back fond memories. I was in Germany for three months last year. I knew a passable amount of German, in no way great. Whenever I ventured to utter some German to my new colleagues, they would be delighted. Seeing them so happy would make me proud, but only for a while, as they would begin to speak rapid German! After realising from my blank stare that I wasn't following at all, they would go back to speaking in English. This would happen quite a lot.

I know how Mark Twain felt... :)

From: Bev Lichterman (meadowlark kc.rr.com)
Subject: foreign languages

My non-English speaking visitor from Majorca walked in the room without his daughter, so in my best high school Spanish, I asked, "Donde esta su hija?" He looked at me blankly and said, "No understand Ingles"! Well, anyway, I'm in good company with Mark Twain!

From: Patricia Clarke (patricia.clarke ca.com)
Subject: Pronunciation of French words by English speakers

This morning's A.Word.A.Day made me smile. I live in Western Pennsylvania, US, and in the early 1700s the area was being claimed by the French. Pittsburgh was a French fort, Fort Duquesne. Many of the towns in the region have names from the French, but are not pronounced at all as they are in French. Two of my favorite examples: "North Versailles", which is pronounced "North Versayles", and "DuBois", which is pronounced "DuBoyce". Amazingly enough, we pronounce "Duquesne" correctly as "Dukane". Go figure!

From: Warwick Hoare (warwick.hoare sensometrics.com)
Subject: French

One of my favourite quotations is from P.G. Wodehouse: "His face took on the expression of an Englishman about to speak French."

From: Kathleen Stidham (stidmama yahoo.com)
Subject: Thank You

I just wanted to tell you thank you. The daily emails give me a chance to ground myself, to remind myself of something I had forgotten, or to learn something new, and sometimes gives me the ability to "re-gift" to the middle-school students I work with.

Today, your introductory explanation about how a person can learn the grammar of a language but not grasp the nuances allowed me to share this with my fellow students in a college class.

Just wanted you to know how much your work is appreciated.

Languages, like our bodies, are in a perpetual flux, and stand in need of recruits to supply those words that are continually falling through disuse. -Cornelius Conway Felton, educator (1807-1862)

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