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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: French hens

Three French hens
So...if the country is called France, why isn't the adjective (and the name of the language) ... Franch?

The word was originally "Frankish", derived from the Franks who invaded Gaul after the fall of Rome and gave France its name (more about them in this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/01/frankly-im-incensed.html).
But a phonetic phenomenon happened in Old English words where the second syllable had an "i" sound in it, called "i-mutation" (more about this when we get to the geese a-laying). To put it simply, the "i" affected the sound of the vowel in the preceding syllable, so that Frankish morphed into "frenkish" and then got squished down to "Frenksh", ultimately written as "French".

Well, enough with the ancient phonetics, you really want to know about the connections between "French" and ... sexually transmitted diseases. 

When Europe experienced its first recorded outbreak of syphilis after the French siege of Naples in 1495, the Italians blamed the French, and called it "the French disease". The French had other ideas, and not surprisingly called it "the Naples disease". But "French" became the  popular designation throughout Europe thanks to a poem published in 1530: Syphilis, sive Morbvs Gallicvs ‘Syphilis, or the French disease’).  The author was (it goes without saying) Italian. Syphilus was the name of a shepherd in the poem, supposedly the first sufferer from the disease. Oh for the good old days of literature, when people wrote poems about ... venereal diseases.

The English were not slow to hop on the anti-French bandwagon, and called this new "pox" by various francophobic names: French compliment, French disease, French evil, French goods, French marbles, French measles, French pox. But, being equal-opportunity xenophobes, they also called it variously "Neapolitan", "Spanish", "Persian", and even occasionally "Scottish". One misguided person proposed the "English pox", but that surprisingly did not catch on.

Having wandered quite some distance from the origin of this post, I should say that I do not think there is any nasty innuendo in the true love's third gift!

And to take your mind away from syphilis, here are some adorable hens (and yes, they are French) from the delightful ballet La Fille mal Gardée by Frederick Ashton:


If you love ballet, please check out my season of outstanding ballet trips by clicking here.

For why we write "twelfth" rather than "twelvth":

For pipers, click here:

For lords a-leaping:

For why I'm not the Word Wench:

For why milkmaids work in a dairy rather than a milkery:

For what swans have to do with singing, click here: 

Why we don't say "gooses" and "gooselings: 

For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:

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  1. > Oh for the good old days of literature, when people wrote poems about ... venereal diseases.

    For a more modern equivalent, see "RENT".

  2. My daughter rented four chickens this past summer. While lovely and generous with their eggs, they never "performed" quite like this quintet!


About Me

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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.