STEELBOW, CHEPTEL.

I just ran across a French word I’d been unfamiliar with, cheptel ‘livestock’ (though technically ‘livestock’ is cheptel vif, cheptel mort being ‘farm equipment’). I immediately identified it as being from Latin capitalis, the adjective of caput ‘head,’ but how exactly was it derived? The che- clearly indicated a direct (“popular”) descendent, but the -p- was out of place and suggested a learned formation. Upon consulting my Nouveau dictionnaire étymologique du français by Jacqueline Picoche (Hachette, 1971), a very useful work, I discovered I was right on both counts; it was listed s.v. chef under “mots demi-savants”: “Cheptel XVIIe s. : réfection, par adjonction d’un p étym. de l’anc. fr. chetel (pop.) XIe s. : lat. capitale, adj. neutre substantivé, « le principal (des biens possédés) ».” So the -p- was added by savants who knew the Latin derivation.
I also used the Advanced Search interface of the online OED to see if it would turn up anything of interest, and it pointed me to the entry for another word hitherto unknown to me and quite interesting in its own right, steelbow (Sc. Law. Obs. exc. Hist.) “A quantity of farming stock, which a tenant received from his landlord on entering, and which he was bound to render up undiminished at the close of his tenancy.” (Here‘s the Dictionary of the Scots Language entry.) The OED etymology (unchanged since 1916) reads:

< steel n.1 + bow n.3
It corresponds to the French cheptel de fer (see Littré), lit. ‘iron farm-stock’, and to early modern German stählin vieh, eisern vieh (in German Law Latin pecora chalybea, ferrea), and obsolete Danish jernfæ. These terms denote the quantity of live stock which a farming tenant receives from his landlord on entering, under a contract to restore the same quantity and value at the end of his tenancy. This is precisely the sense of steelbow, exc. that the Scots term seems to have been extended to apply to dead as well as live stock. The French cheptel de fer is also used, like steelbow, for the species of tenure or contract under which cattle are so held by a tenant. In early modern German there were other legal terms containing the adjs. stählin ‘made of steel’, eisern ‘made of iron’, in the figurative sense ‘rigidly fixed in amount’: e.g. stähline gült, a fixed regular payment or income: stähline pfründe, a church living subject to no deductions. The figure of speech doubtless comes down from very early Germanic legal formulæ; but evidence is wanting. See Schilter Glossarium, s.v. Stal; also Grimm Deutsche Rechtsaltertümer (ed. 4, 1899) II. 131.

I should point out that the “bow n.3” refers to the original numeration; in the current online OED, the sense intended—”The stock of cattle on a farm, a herd” (from Old Norse farming, a farm, farm stock)—is bow n.4, so the link is misleading; I’ve e-mailed them to that effect.

Comments

  1. Is cheptel the source of the English word “chattle”?

  2. No, though they’re both from the same (Old French) source; chattel is from Middle English chatel, from Old French chatel, chetel, from late Latin captāle, from Latin capitāle.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    cheptel: the p should be ignored in pronunciation too (as in the number sept ‘seven’), as if the word was “chetel”, which it was in Old French. So indeed chattel has the same origin as cheptel. Rural French people (at least in the Northern part) say “chetel” (or “chtel” depending on the preceding word, according to the usual rules of schwa-deletion), but their urban counterparts have limited occasions to hear the word spoken and therefore tend to use the spelling pronunciation with [p].
    I didn’t know about the cheptel mort or the cheptel de fer.

  4. Ah, it’s good to know that French too has what in Castilian are called semicultismos: words that are borrowed from Latin, but have nevertheless undergone some but not all of the sound-changes of inherited words. An example is Castilian regla ‘rule’, as opposed to regular ‘regular’ on the one hand, a typical borrowing, and reja ‘grid’ on the other, a typical inherited form. Another is obra ‘work’ versus opera ‘opera’ (from Italian rather than direct from Latin) and huebra ‘amount of land that can be plowed in a day’. Semicultismos are often legal or ecclesiastical, and are probably transcriptions into Castilian of how Latin was once pronounced in Castilian-speaking areas.
    Oddly enough, the only decent Wikipedia article is from the Aragonese Biquipedia, here. It’s readable if you have any Castilian at all. There is a sibling article on Aragonese semicultismos

  5. but their urban counterparts have limited occasions to hear the word spoken and therefore tend to use the spelling pronunciation with [p].
    My (beat-up but beloved) 1926 Petit Larousse gives the pronunciation as che-tèl’; the one I think of as “new” but is actually twenty years old now (*stifled sob*) has “[ʃɛptɛl] ou (vx) [ʃtɛl].” So the p seems to have crept in over the intervening decades.

  6. The same sort of semi-Latinism has happened in English, too, as in the silent <b> inserted into “doubt” and “debt” (reflecting Latin dubito and debitum, cf. “dubious” and “debit”).

  7. marie-lucie says:

    LH: just what I was referring to. My father, born and raised in Paris (but with relatives on a small farm) says [ʃtɛl]. I can’t find my 1968 Petit Robert to check what it says.

  8. And “cattle” comes into English from the Norman cognate.

  9. Ddraig Werdd says:

    The word was borrowed in Romanian as șeptel(ʃeptel).

  10. John Cowan, Ran: “Cheptel” is *not* a semi-learned word in the same sense that the Spanish words John Cowan quotes, or the English words Ran quotes, are semi-learned words: it’s a word whose phonological evolution was one hundred per cent “popular” but which late in its history received an etymological letter (p, in this case) in its *spelling*, which subsequently made its way in the pronunciation of an ever-growing number of francophones (myself included).

  11. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    cheptel: the p should be ignored in pronunciation too (as in the number sept ‘seven’), as if the word was “chetel”, which it was in Old French. So indeed chattel has the same origin as cheptel.
    I was surprised by Marie-Lucie’s comment about the p, because I’m sure she knows more about it than I do. However, it’s a word that crops up from time to time in news reports on television in France, and although I don’t think I’ve seen it written before I knew it had a p in it.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    ACB, so did you hear the word with or without a [p]?

  13. In early modern German there were other legal terms containing the adjs. stählin ‘made of steel’, eisern ‘made of iron’, in the figurative sense ‘rigidly fixed in amount’: e.g. stähline gült, a fixed regular payment or income
    In late modern English we have Steely Dan. According to the Official FAQ, “[Becker and Fagen] decided to name the band ‘Steely Dan’ after a dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch”. The WiPe clarifies that this is ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama’, a strap-on model.
    The Grimm article on stählen mentions a (rare) form stächlin, which put me in mind of Der Stechlin. The lakes in the area are renowned for their “glass clarity”, and there is a belief that its name derives from a “Slavic” word steklo meaning glass. Grimm gives a metonymic use of stählern to mean “shine”, as of polished steel. As far as I can tell, Germaine Necker became a Steely Lady when she married.

  14. Okay, so we have three different kinds of etymologies here:
    Spanish examples: borrowing with sound changes;
    English examples: borrowing with unetymological spelling;
    French example: native with unetymological spelling followed by spelling pronunciation.
    Now I’m still wondering if there are anything like Spanish semicultismos in French. Etienne, can you think of any?

  15. I was surprised by Marie-Lucie’s comment about the p, because I’m sure she knows more about it than I do. However, it’s a word that crops up from time to time in news reports on television in France, and although I don’t think I’ve seen it written before I knew it had a p in it.
    Right, it’s been pronounced with the -p- for decades, but that’s a spelling pronunciation.

  16. John Cowan: an excellent “semicultismo” in French and in Spanish is “livre”/”libro”: Latin LIBRUM has undergone the normal set of sound changes regarding the final -UM and the consonants, but the vowel of the initial syllable indicates learned interference: because the Latin /i/ is short we’d expect the Spanish word to be *LEBRO and the French word *LOIVRE (Cf. compare French POIVRE, from PIPEREM, which underwent a wholly normal, “popular” evolution).
    Indeed, I think I recall a description of a Northern English or Scottish dialect where the local reflex of BOOK clearly indicates that the word had been recently borrowed from Southern English: a nice historical parallel.
    Incidentally, it’s quite clear that LIBRUM, complete with a short /i/, must indeed have once been the dominant form of the word within the Roman Empire: Welsh “llyfr” is borrowed from spoken Latin, but its “y” (=schwa) can only go back to a Latin short /i/.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, you compare LIBR-um with PIPER-em, but LIBR- has a primary cluster, PIPER- a secondary one (in later *PIBR-), so wouldn’t that difference have affected the evolution of the I vowel in “pre-French”, before the loss of the E vowel?

  18. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it with a [p], because otherwise I don’t know how I would have known that it was spelt with a p. I’ll have to pay attention next time there’s a report about some agricultural problem involving the slaughter of a lot of cows.

  19. As I said up above, it’s been pronounced with the -p- for decades. Unless you were listening to marie-lucie’s father, it’s unlikely you would have heard it any other way.

  20. Marie-Lucie: in terms of the relative chronology of sound changes it is quite clear that the reduction of PIPERE to PIPRE must precede all of the other changes (except the fall of final -m), so that the starting points would have been PIPRE and LIBRU, both with a stressed short /i/, which would have been expected to yield /wa/ in the Modern French reflexes of both words. The different final vowels would not have had an effect either.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Merci, Etienne. The retention of /i/ in livre could then be due to the fact that the word referred to an object which was not a familiar one for most people, and was likely to belong to the technical vocabulary of priests and clerks, people who continued to study and use Latin for a long time in their professional activities. So the word would indeed qualify as a “semi-cultismo” (is there a French equivalent?).
    LH, indeed my father is way past the age where his pronunciation of anything could serve as a recommended model to learners. I like it nevertheless, but my age is also against me as a reference!

  22. Marie-Lucie: exactly. And no, there is no word corresponding to “semi-cultismo” in diachronic French linguistics: indeed the basic dichotomy “mot populaire”/”mot savant” is misleading, because in many instances the borrowed Latinism (“mot savant”) is more widespread, more colloquial than the inherited word (“Mot populaire”).

  23. Well, I looked in Rickard’s History of the French Language, which I should have checked in the first place, and he lists a number of Latin words with penultimate stress that were reduced to paroxytones but kept some or all of their Latin vowel qualities: image, ange, virge > vierge, amne > âme. The second vowel of école makes it semi-learned (as Rickard says, it is the learned word par excellence), as does the only partial reduction of saeculum to siecle rather than all the way to sieil (cf. vieil < *veclu < vetulum). Lastly there is mal instead of *mel < malum. But Rickard does not have a word in either English or French for this category: it seems he thinks of it as a collection of anomalies, not a category at all.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    JC: amne: don’t you mean anme (from anima)? All these words belong to the specialized vocabulary I was referring to, even if some of them would also be used more popularly (such as malum). Ordinary people would not often need to refer to centuries, but saecula saeculorum ‘les siècles des siècles’ is quite common in the Latin liturgy. Such words would have been learned not from everyday conversation but from preachers, whose pronunciation of these words had remained close to the Latin originals.

  25. Anme, of course, a mere misreading of minims. And by “penultimate stress” I of course meant antepenultimate (proparoxytone) stress: imaginem, angelum, virginem, anima.

  26. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    My age is also against me as a reference!
    Mine too! I’m just a couple of weeks short of 70. My daughter, who has lived most of her life in France and during her childhood mainly heard English spoken by me, was told recently by someone she met at work that she sounded like the Queen. It’s not really true (and I don’t sound much like the Queen either), but I know what he meant. The Queen’s grandchildren increasingly sound as if they come from Essex, and even her own speech has evolved with the years, but if you live abroad for many years your way of speaking your native language gets frozen.
    I have recently been watching some DVDs of the 3rd season of The Avengers. As they were bought in France I can choose to have the dialogue in English or French, but I find that I much prefer to hear Steed and Mrs Peel speaking in French — in part because that’s what I’ve become used to, but also because the English dialogue (from about 1965) sounds terribly dated.

  27. “Nay,” said I, “I come not from heaven, but from Essex.”

    —William Morris’s time-traveling narrator in A Dream Of John Ball

  28. “No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in Outer Space.”
    – Captain Kirk in the fourth Star Trek movie

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