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Friday, December 20, 2013

What's that smell?

An avid Wordlady reader has written to inquire why the French word odeur has different connotations than the English word odour. This question arose because she, a singer like me, is rehearsing the lovely 17th-century French Christmas carol "Quelle est cette odeur agréable?". Clearly we cannot translate this into English as "What's that agreeable odour?", since "odour" has come to mean "unpleasant smell". As you will see below, English translators have opted instead for "fragrance".

The classical Latin word odor covered quite an olfactory range: smell, pleasant scent, unpleasant smell, perfume, spice.  In Old French, odeur tended to be used of a pleasant scent, and we took on the same positive connotations when we borrowed the word in the 14th century (we already had "stink" and "smell" for noisome smells). Gradually, though, "odour" became more and more associated with assaults on the nostrils, so that by the beginning of the 20th century, only negative connotations were left (in French, odeur is still used of both pleasant and unpleasant smells). 

But back to 17th-century France. Isn't it weird that a Christmas carol would be talking about odours at all, pleasant or otherwise? There was a belief that the bodies of saints near or after death exhaled a sweet balsamic odour, which was proof of their saintliness. In French this was called the odeur de sainteté. Imagine, then, what streams of aromatic exhalations would come from the newborn Jesus.

Not at all the type of odour you would normally associate with a baby.

My choir won't be singing this one this year, but we will be singing a lot of other lovely carols on Sunday the 22nd at St Thomas's Anglican Church, 383 Huron Street, Toronto ON:
7:00 p.m. Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols

  • Sussex Carol, English trad., ar. Willcocks
  • Adam lay ybounden, Boris Ord 
  • God rest you merry
  • The Holly and the Ivy, Eng., ar. H.W. Davies 74 (vv. 1-4)
  • Angelus ad Virginem, Basque, ar. Andrew Carter
  • In dulci jubilo, ar. Pearsall
  • Noël nouvelet, French trad., ar. Stephen Jackson
  • A Babe is born in Bethlehem, William Mathias
Organ: Variations sur un Noël Bourguignon, André Fleury; In dulci jubilo, BWV 729, 608 and 751, J.S. Bach
Do drop by

Here's "Quelle est cette odeur agréable?", and with it may I wish all Wordlady readers a very happy Christmas.
http://youtu.be/pbTSK3eEPaI 

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French text


Quelle est cette odeur agréable,
Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?
S’exhale-t-il rien de semblable
Au milieu des fleurs du printemps?
Quelle est cette odeur agréable
Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?

Mais quelle éclatante lumière
Dans la nuit vient frapper nos yeux
L’astre de jour, dans sa carrière,
Fût-il jamais si radieux!
Mais quelle éclatante lumière
Dans la nuit vient frapper nos yeux.

A Bethléem, dans une crèche
Il vient de vous naître un Sauveur
Allons, que rien ne vous empeche
D’adorer votre redémpteur
A Bethléem, dans une crèche,
Il vient de vous naître un Sauveur.

Dieu tout puissant, gloire éternelle
Vous soit rendue jusqu’aux cieux.
Que la paix soit universelle
Que la grace abonde en tous lieux.
Dieu tout puissant, gloire éternelle
Vous soit rendue jusqu’aux cieux

English translation
by Rod Mather

Where is that goodly fragrance flowing
to steal the senses all away?
adorns the air, and nothing like it
the shepherds sensed in fields in May?
Where is that goodly fragrance flowing
to steal the senses all away?

A light so bright, a beam so piercing
it turns our darkness into day.
The light of Christ, it is so radiant,
the beam it casts to be our way.
A light so bright, a beam so piercing
it turns our darkness into day.

Shepherds to Bethlehem, go hasten!
And in a manger see him lay.
Adore your God and your redeemer;
Saviour of all to win the day
Shepherds to Bethlehem, go hasten!
And in a manger see him lay.

All pow'rful God, and King eternal,
The heavens praise with one accord.
Grace, peace and truth give to all nations
Spring forth from Jesus Christ our Lord.
All pow’rful God, and King eternal,
The heavens praise with one accord

1 comment:

  1. Excellent performance - 'piercing my soul'!

    ReplyDelete

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.