Vocabulary surprises

For some purposes, you can function fairly well with material in another language, so long as the topic stays within domains that are familiar to you — like linguistics, say. But when you wander into other domains, especially those that are closely tied to sociocultural conventions, things get messy, even if you stick to nouns; there’s just so much to know about cultural artifacts and customs, for example, and a huge vocabulary to acquire in these areas, in the names of animals and plants, etc.

I can deal pretty well with technical material in French, for example, but I’m easily stumped when it comes to artifacts, animals, plants, and the like. By way of illustration: my daughter gave me a big box of postcards on The Art of Instruction, with images of school materials from the 1950s, from mostly French but also some German sources. The German items have no text, but the French material (from Éditions Rossignol — the name is great; rossignol means ‘nightingale’) is heavy with text. For animals and plants, much of the vocabulary is technical teminology from zoology, anatomy, or botany, and that’s fascinating, but I can’t be expected to know these expressions. However, there are also the common names for animals and plants, and they contain many surprises.

That brings me to the tadpole.

The cover of the box, from Chronicle Books (in San Francisco):


And the frog card:


The surprise here was (le) têtard — obviously ‘tadpole’, and fairly obviously tête ‘head’ plus the suffix -ard, used for diminutives or pejoratives (I have basic French vocabulary and know a fair amount about French morphology, but I checked etymological sources just to be sure). And the name makes some sense after the fact: tadpoles are mostly head:


(Feel free to insert a remark about sperm here.)

The point is that I couldn’t possibly have guessed how to translate tadpole into French. Even if I knew the etymology of the English word (which I didn’t, until I looked it up this morning), I’m sure I’d never have hit on têtard. Wikipedia on tadpoles:

A tadpole (also called pollywog or porwigle) is the larval stage in the life cycle of an amphibian, particularly that of a frog or toad. They are usually wholly aquatic, though some species have tadpoles that are terrestrial.

… The name “tadpole” is from Middle English taddepol, made up of the elements tadde, “toad”, and pol, “head” (modern English “poll”). Similarly, “polliwog” is from Middle English polwygle, made up of the same pol, “head” and wiglen, “to wiggle”.

If I’d known that, I might have guessed that tête was involved, but that wouldn’t have gotten me to têtard. You just have to know the word.

Along the same lines, here’s a plant:


There’s a pile of botanical terminology — French for sepal, pistil, achene, and stamen, in particular — but then there’s the common name of the plant, (lebouton d’or (or bouton-d’or), literally ‘button of gold’. Again, that makes sense after the fact, but I can’t see any way to get from the English common name, buttercup, to the French. (Photos of buttercups in this posting.)

The Art of Instruction cards are in fact a constant education in everyday French vocabulary that I didn’t know and couldn’t have predicted. I’m not sure what use there is for me to know how to talk about tadpoles or buttercups in French, but it entertains me.


4 Responses to “Vocabulary surprises”

  1. John Says:

    While learning Arabic, I always found Arab school books, aimed at 4th-8th graders to be extremely useful. The high school texts started to bleed politics into every subject, and while that was interesting in its own right, it wasn’t nearly as much fun.

  2. Alon Says:

    Botanical, zoological and gastronomical terminology varies widely between cognate languages, and even between dialects.

    Other than those which are direct adaptations of the scientific name, one of the few examples of translatability I can think of are forget-me-nots (Myosotis spp.), whose name in most European languages is calqued from French ne-m’oubliez-pas. Interestingly, it’s a rather old calque in Germanic (with attestations back to Middle High German), which underwent a second round of diffusion in Romance due to the popularity of French culture in the 19th century.

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