Monday, February 12, 2007

" How among the frozen words, Pantagruel found some odd ones."

" He then threw upon the deck whole handfuls of frozen words, which seemed to us like your rough sugar plums, of many colours, like those used in heraldry;... one of them, that was pretty big, having been warmed between the hands... gave a sound like chestnuts when they are thrown into the fire without being first cut, which made us all start.

... Panurge prayed Pantagruel to give him some more, but Pantagruel told him that to give words was the part of a lover. Sell me some then, I pray you! cried Panurge. That's the part of a lawyer, returned Pantagruel.

... I would fain have saved some merry odd words, and have preserved them in oil, as ice and snow are kept, and between clean straw, but Pantagruel would not let me, saying it was folly to hoard up what we are never like to want, or have always to hand."

( Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Bk 4, Ch. 56, trans. Urquart )

I knew why they lopped the trees like that, but not that it had a special word and history. Then, some time ago, I read a letter in a newspaper, explaining, in response to another letter of enquiry, that the practice was known as emondage. Always satisfying to have a word and an explanation, and what a curious word, what did it have to do with the world?

But I didn't keep the article, and I forgot the word. I started taking pictures of the trees, and forming what I wanted to say about them, but without the word it was a non-starter. My elderly neighbours were largely keeping withindoors for the winter, and when I did see them I forgot to ask if they knew it. The notaire, the local, partially state-salaried lawyer who deals with property matters,I thought would probably be the best bet.

This occurred to me as I came down out of the woods by my friend's house, trailing one spaniel (mine), one rumbustious collie cross and one greyhound (hers I was walking for her that day). The notaire's office is on the road just above, so I put the dogs back in their respective confines (our car rather resembles a rolling dog kennel, with vestiges of beach or woodland floor strewn about it), and walked up there, walking boots, leaf mould, dog hair and all.

Moncontour notaires' office isn't grand, some of them are, but a degree of formality is observed in these places. We were told at one time that one should address a notaire by the title Maitre, not merely Monsieur, though since many of them are now women I should imagine this has gone by the board. But even for women your chances of being accepted into the profession are reduced if your father or other senior male relative wasn't one. I said I had a question and was asked to sit and wait.

After a time, one partner came out. She listened to my enquiry with unwavering seriousness, and again, asked me to wait. I waited. And waited. The passage from Rabelais I'd once read about the frozen words like sugar plums came into my mind. I half expected this peculiar or antiquated word, once unearthed form the dusty canons of the notaires leather-bound volumes, to be brought out to me on some form of salver, possibly adorned with the tricolour ribbon much favoured on ceremonial occasions.

Eventually my notaire came back with another, who she said, spoke English. I repeated (in French) that it was a French word I wanted, that I had seen it once but lost it, it was for something I wanted to write. They pondered, was the word elagage, they suggested. No, that was a current, more general word, though often the one used for the practice. I was taken into an inner sanctum - I apologised for the muddy boots and was graciously excused - while books were consulted and 'phone calls made. Finally another colleague was contacted who came up with the word: "Emondage?" " Yes!" I cried, that was it! My impeccably correct interlocutor permitted herself a smile of satisfaction.

In fact the word is not particularly archaic, simply specialised. I came across it shortly afterwards on an information board about hedgerows at the arboretum, which I must have walked past many times.

The episode in ' Pantagruel ' is often seen as satire applicable still to the attitude of the Academie Francaise to the language, that they would keep it frozen and atrophied, rather than let it be warmed between the hands of usage, and would preserve and save the words they prefer rather than let new ones be found and formed. An interesting thing I heard recently: the word 'e-mail' is frowned upon in French, it should be replaced by the undoubtedly more elegant and well-formed 'courriel'. However, an even cleverer word having arisen for spam - 'pourriel' , its use has apparently been discountenanced by the worthies of the Academie, for no other reason one can see but that they didn't think of it, and it shows dangerous tendencies toward humour and playfulness with the language. I wonder what Rabelais would have made of it.

8 comments:

Tall Girl said...

Love your fantasy of the word being offered on a salver...
I enjoyed this post a lot. Let words remain ever warm and pliable.

herhimnbryn said...

Words as warmed stones you can put in your pocket.

A great post L.

French Fancy said...

What an interesting post. Good idea to think of going to the notaire's.

herhimnbryn said...

Oh my! Thankyou for adding Secret Hill to your links.

Lucy said...

Thank you, loyal and faithful visitors and new one alike!
FF - I'll have to watch out for sloppy inexactitudes now I know I might have another Brittany resident reader!
H - you're very welcome, no more than you deserve; I love Secret Hill and really value your visits and encouragement also.

Avus said...

"our car rather resembles a rolling dog kennel, with vestiges of beach or woodland floor strewn about it"
Lovely! I know a number of cars like that in our family.
I enjoyed this post immensely.

Dave said...

Rabelais would have farted in their general direction.

Lucy said...

Oh yes!