or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Hanging Around

When a word that you know in one language happens to have made its way into another language, with a somewhat different meaning...well, you can imagine how confusing that can be.

Here's a sentence from a New Yorker review of a biography of Disraeli:

Partly, it was the natural high spirits of a true flâneur; partly, it involved an astute reading of the English character.

And I thought, "Flâneur? They can't possibly have gotten that right." Not that the New Yorker is known for its mistakes, mind. But in Montréal, you will see signs reading "Defense de flâner": the verb "flâner" actually means "to stroll", but in the context of a public sign it means "no loitering" or "no dawdling". Disraeli? A dawdler?

However, in English, "flâneur" has a specialized meaning that I had never heard before: it doesn't mean "loiterer", exactly, or even "stroller", but "idler", and it specifically refers to a kind of well-to-do, aimless man-about-town; not some bum hanging around outside the mall begging for change, but a dandy with not much to do and lots of time to publicly do it in.

Google Translate knows, a little too well, that French "-eur" generally becomes "-or" in English ("acteur" becomes "actor", for instance): if you type "flâneur" into the Translate Text box and translate it from French into English, you get "flanor", which, you will probably not be surprised to hear, does not exist in English. (Translate "stroll" from English into French, however, and you will get "flâner". One of the mysteries of Google Translate.)


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