or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Brown Study

Yesterday I mentioned something I didn't know (and still don't, so don't ask), and here's something else I don't know, though this time I have the perfect excuse: nobody else does, either.

There is a kind of drawing medium, kind of like pastel but also kind of like charcoal, called "Conté"; it's named after the chemist who devised it, Nicolas-Jacques Conté. It comes in a number of colours, most of them very dark because it's made of clay and natural pigments such as oxides of iron (which is to say rust) and carbon black (which is to say charcoal). One of the common colours of Conté is "bistre", a very dark brownish grey. Bistre was originally made of burnt beech-tree wood, boiled down and then thinned with water to make a yellow-brown drawing ink; by extension, the word now means any shade of this colour.

Nobody knows where the word "bistre" comes from; apart from the fact that it's obviously French, it's just...there. The OED has some speculations, but in the end they simply say that connections between it and other possible candidates are "wanting".

When you look at "bistre", don't you naturally and automatically think of "bistro"? I know I do. And yet not only are the words (unsurprisingly) not related, nobody knows where "bistro" comes from, either. It's a surprisingly new word, dating from the end of the nineteenth century in French and the first quarter of the twentieth in English. It started out life as "bistrot", with a silent terminal "-t" which got lost at some point. Otherwise, no real clue as to its origin. Dictionary.com has two proposed etymologies, both of them displaying more than a touch of the fanciful and almost certainly invented.


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