Saturday, 2 October 2021

The lure of the one-word-fits-all "dictionary"

 A few years ago I was writing, as I sometimes do, about Gutenberg, and quoted Wikipedia's

His surname [my emphasis] was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors ...
Wallau's [HD2021: the writer who Wikipedia was citing] word was cognomenJohannes was as much Johannes Gutenberg as Leonard Woolf was Leonard Hogarth  (whose business just took its name from Hogarth House). I imagine the wikipedioscribe saw cognomen, wondered what it meant and looked in some benighted dictionary that went for tight-lipped and simplistic one-word "equivalences" such as's
... without bothering to read the rest of the definition. 
Old blog post

I was reminded of this the other day while watching Pointless when the round involved the meanings of French words for parts of a house. The contestants had had their go, and the host (Alexander Armstrong) was providing answers to the remaining questions. They came finally to grenier, and he said (uncertainly, I thought as I was watching live, though on a second look I see I was wrong, "barn") and his sidekick (the ubiquitous Richard Osman) "corrected" him to "attic". My first thought was that Armstrong didn't speak French and was guessing on the basis of a similarity to our "granary" (a good guess, as Wiktionary confirms:

From Middle French grenier, from Old French grenier, gernier, guernier, from Latin grānārium. Equivalent to grain +‎ -ier.

). And you can add to the related words not only "granary" but also "garner"...

(in which case, spot the metathesis; and if you're not sure what that is start here)


But I was wrong about Armstrong's  francophony . His second offering, drowned out by the "right" answer, was "attic" (which, admittedly, is more of a 'part of a house').  And, turning to the oracle, I find that Larousse confirms Armstrong's order of possibilities:


And note also that 3rd usage. In French grenier fulfils the same metaphorical role as our "bread-basket"; (this is one of the many advantages of monolingual dictionaries - the way they cast fascinating new light into the language by means of serendipitous revelations; I've only just met this usage, but it's one I don't think I'll forget).

For the faint-hearted ...

, or those who went to school after that obscurantist vandal Michael Gove made the learning of foreign languages optional (at any serious level), giving the privately educated yet another unfair advantage over the cattle-class of public eduation,
</mini_rant>'s a French-English version:


So Armstrong's first answer was not far off the mark (the translation was OK though the context was wrong - and his only mistake was not realizing that the context was not a text but a quiz question.).
And at the mention of grenier the vision came to me of my French master (referred to in various posts in this blog), when Le Grand Meaulnes arpentait la salle in the attic overhead, miming arpenter - although Meaules didn't do it in a threadbare and tattered master's gown.

Tha'sall she wrote. 


Update 2021.10.03.18:30 – Various tweaks and typo fixes.

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