In case you didn’t know, I’m currently vacationing in Paris. My travel buddy, Yiannis, and I have been doing lots of Parisian stuff, including a visit to the Centre Pompidou; hitting a carnival where we rode the Ferris wheel and (dangerous) log flume (how dangerous? the only thing keeping us from flying out of the log were physics and hanging on for dear life); a boat tour of the Canal Saint-Martine; a visit to Parc de Bercy; and seeing American Ultra (at least the subtitles were Parisian).
But as two language buffs, we’ve also been noticing and wondering a lot about words.
Puce. When Yiannis went to use his credit card, the sales woman instructed him to put it into a different slot in the machine since his card had a puce, or microchip. That got him wondering about the word puce, which in French also means “flea.”
We guessed a chip was is so-called because it’s tiny like the blood-sucking insect, but then I wondered if the English color word was related too.
“Maybe it’s the color after you smash a flea,” Yiannis joked.
He turned out to be pretty close. The English puce does indeed come from the French puce meaning “flea-colored; flea,” which comes from the Latin pucilem, “flea.” The Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to say, “That [puce] could be generally recognized as a color seems a testimony to our ancestors’ intimacy with vermin.”
Bateaux-Mouche. While we were sunning ourselves along the Seine, we saw several boats called Bateaux-Mouche. From my high school French – and context clues – I knew that bateaux meant “boats,” but I didn’t recognize mouche.
Yiannis looked it up and saw a meaning of mouche was “fly” so we thought maybe it meant that the boats were fast (although they’re not). I dug a little a deeper and found that mouche also means “patch, beauty spot”; “bull’s-eye” (faire mouch means to hit the bull’s eye); and that a bateau mouche is an excursion or pleasure boat.
However, that mouche has nothing to do with a fly, beauty mark, or bull’s eye. Bateau mouche was a registered trademark and referred to where the boats were once manufactured, namely “the Mouche area of Lyon.”
Barbe à papa. At the carnival, Yiannis noticed a sign for cotton candy that read barbe à papa. “What does that mean?” he wondered, and looked it up: papa’s beard.
That got us curious about how cotton candy is referred to in other languages. According to this BBC forum, in British English it’s “candy floss”; Australian English, “fairy floss”; and in Dutch, suikerspin which translates as “sugar spider.”
Then I started wondering if the Japanese cream puff chain, Beard Papa’s, has anything to do with the French phrase. I didn’t find anything definitive, only speculation that the name is probably a literal translation.
And to complicate things further, cotton candy in Japanese is watakashi, which translates as, well, “cotton (wata) candy (kasha).” In more watakashi trivia, Amaicho Watakashi is a “character” associated with Utau, a Japanese singing synthesizer application.