or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Grease Monkey

I think it's fair to say that most people go through life never really wondering what the words they say mean. I'm not one of those people--that should be obvious--but even I can't consider every single word that comes out of my mouth or goes into my eyes, or I'd never get anything else done.

There's a persistent rumour that a lip balm called Carmex is literally addictive: that once you start using it, you have to keep using it, because it contains either some addicting drug (which is absorbed through the lips, I guess) or an irritant such as acid or glass fibres which damage the lips and force you to keep using the balm. This is obviously ridiculous and untrue, but I can attest to the fact that using a lip balm of some sort is more or less addictive; I slap the stuff on at least twenty times a day, I have tubes of it all over the place (three in my knapsack, for some reason, one in every coat pocket, one in every room in the house), and I get very uncomfortable if I'm accidentally without it. (I've been known to surreptitiously smudge on some butter in a restaurant.) The reason isn't that it contains some noxious chemical; the reason is that you quickly get used to the feel of moist, frictionless lips, until normal, unmoisturized lips feel dry and unnatural and disconcerting to you.

So tonight on the bus I was putting on quick swipe and I happened to look down at the tube (Blistex Spa Effects, with a sunscreen--very useful, even in our wan February sunlight--and the scent of vanilla and plums) and saw that this particular scent was described in English as "relaxing" (it'll take more than a balm to relax me) and in French as "détente".


I've even written about the word, and yet in all these years I had never thought to wonder what it literally meant. It was adopted from French into English, accent mark and all, in the early twentieth century but really picked up steam during the last days of the Cold War, and meant the lessening of tension between two governments--in this case, the U.S. and Russia. But it had such a specifically political meaning that it never occurred to me that it could have any other sense.

But it does. In French, obviously, it has that literal meaning: the release of tension. It's originally from Latin, of course, from "tendere", "to stretch": the "de-" prefix is a negation, just as it is in English, and so "détente" literally means to let go of a stretch, to release tension, to relax. Obvious, yes, but I didn't see it until it was spelled out for me on a tube of wax.


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