Yesterday’s F Minus cartoon, sent to me by Jan Freeman:

The food name baguette, in English and French, looks like a straightforward diminutive, derived from a base bague, which would then refer to a larger form of French bread (as in the cartoon). But in fact there’s no French food name bague (and so no English one either). English got foodie baguette from French, yes, but its history in French involved no base bague.

Remarkably, its history in French (according to OED2) started with the borrowing of an architectural term bacchetta from Italian into French, and then into English, almost three centuries ago, for ‘a small moulding of semicircular section’ (first cite 1728). Italian bacchetta *was* a diminutive, meaning ‘little rod or wand’, derived from bacchio (Latin baculum ‘staff’). So the Italian architectural term was a metaphorical extension of this diminutive.

Then, borrowed into French and then English, baguette underwent a series of further metaphorical extensions, in different domains: music, gemology, and, finally, food:

2.  Music. [in an 1876 dictionary of musical terms, and notably in]

1938   Oxf. Compan. Music 63/2   Baguette, drumstick (also sometimes used for ‘baton’, and as the name for the stick of a fiddle bow)

3. A gem, usu. a diamond, cut in a long rectangular shape. [first cite in English in 1926]

4. A long, thin loaf of French bread, of various sizes in different regions, but usu. smaller than a flûte. [first cite in English in 1958]

The cartoon F Minus has appeared in this blog once before, here, with an eggcorn. From Wikipedia:

F Minus is a horizontally oriented single panel comic strip by Tony Carrillo, started when he was a sophomore at Arizona State University. It ran daily in The State Press, an independent newspaper at ASU, from 2002 until 2004, when Carrillo graduated.

In an online mtvU strips contest with Scott Adams of Dilbert fame as member of the jury and with almost 200,000 people voting to find the best college comic strip, F Minus came in first place.

Having won a development deal with United Features Syndicate through the contest, syndication of F Minus (in daily newspapers) began on April 17, 2006 in 75 newspapers throughout the United States.

According to Tony Carrillo, most of the comics are about stupidity and losers. It doesn’t feature any story lines and is often compared to one of his favorites, The Far Side by Gary Larson.




6 Responses to “baguette”

  1. chryss Says:

    In the generic “little stick” (such as a conductor’s baton or drumstick) meaning, _baguette_ also refers to a chopstick. Which during a French course I took (in Amboise, France) ca. 1991 led to some confusion when my hostess, who only spoke French, asked two Korean students “est-ce que vous mangez avec des baguettes ?” She asked whether they habitually used chopsticks for eating (in Korea), while between the three students and our imperfect French we could only come up with a sense akin to “is baguette-like bread much eaten in Korea?”

    Also, as you probably know, _bague_ does exist and means “ring” (worn as jewellery). Interestingly, while Alain Rey’s Dictionnaire historique says “of contested origin”, it certainly does not come from Latin _baculum_. The most likely options seem to be that the word is a cognate of Engl. _bag_ (via Dutch) or of German _biegen_ (bend, v.).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I carefully wrote that I was talking about the food name baguette, understanding that this other bague was around in French but irrelevant to my points.

      I didn’t know about the ‘chopsticks’ sense in French — one of the metaphorical extensions that didn’t make it into English (because it was pre-empted by chopsticks, presumably).

  2. chryss Says:

    Also, as for the cartoon, in France the baguette is by definition a 250 g sized bread and a ‘pain’ is a 400 g bread of about the same length but bulkier (with more soft fluffy stuff inside, while the baguette is mostly crust).

    Last, I just remember that during my time in France, I don’t remember when (around 2000?) a politician — either Chirac or maybe Juppé as a prime minister? — gave a speech in which he said he didn’t have a magic wand to solve France’s economic problems. In French: “baguette magique”. This was translated by a Dutch newspaper as something along the lines of the French president (?) saying he doesn’t have a “magisch stookbrod” (stick-bread).

  3. Bob Richmond Says:

    I think it’s time to complete the assimilation of “baguette” into English, so I pronounce it “baggit”.

  4. Valerij Tomarenko (@En_De_Ru) Says:

    In Russian, baguette (багет, clearly of French origin) also means a strip of board or a thin stick to make a picture frame. “Bagetchik” (багетчик) is a frame-maker. On the other hand, baguette as bread is usually a “French baguette” or a “French loaf of bred”.

  5. Annals of phallicity: the breadstuffs « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] should have realized when I posted about baguette — surprise! no foodie bague! — that there would be all sorts of stuff about […]

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