The Licentious Thrush.

I’ve been reading Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Губернские очерки [Provincial sketches] (1856-57), a now-forgotten work consisting of delightful descriptions of the endemically corrupt town of Krutogorsk (a lightly fictionalized version of Vyatka, where he had spent seven years in exile), and at one point a character mentions a woman who sang “гривуазные песни” like “Un soir a la barrière” (a song which, alas, has been even more thoroughly forgotten, so that I have been unable to find out anything about it). Now, the adjective гривуазный was clearly borrowed from a French grivois, but I was unfamiliar with that word; when I looked it up, I discovered it meant ‘saucy, smutty,’ so the Russian phrase meant ‘smutty songs.’ It’s first recorded in 1690 as a noun, meaning ‘soldier,’ and then in 1696 meaning ‘person of free-and-easy morals’ (« personne de mœurs libres et joyeuses ») — a natural semantic transition, I fear. By 1707 it was an adjective (« très libre, hardi »), and the phrase cited as an example is chansons grivoises, a French equivalent of the Russian phrase that started me off.

But where did grivois itself come from? That turns out to be quite interesting. It’s derived from grive ‘thrush’ (or, in the words of the Trésor de la langue française informatisé, “Oiseau de l’ordre des Passereaux, proche du merle, au plumage blanc et brun, dont la chair est appréciée des gastronomes”), which is from Latin graecus ‘Greek,’ because apparently the Romans thought the thrush, a migratory bird, wintered in Greece. Grive developed, for obscure reasons, the slang sense ‘war; army; corps de garde,’ hence the original sense of grivois. Now, that’s a well-traveled word.

Comments

  1. Eli Nelson says:

    If it is from graecus, I wonder how /v/ developed there.

  2. from Latin graecus ‘Greek

    That’s unusual, because Latin for thrush, turdus, is clearly cognate with many other names for thrushes (~~ drozd in many many Germanic, Slavic, Celtic languages, PIE *trozdo). Old English þrȳsce, the etymological source of “thrush” the bird, appears to be right there too, Spanih zorzal also shares a look, although the dictionaries try to explain it through Arabian zurzur “starling” (all of these words may be onomatopoeic). Could the French word be rooted there too, rather than in “Greece”?

  3. Jim (another one) says:

    “If it is from graecus, I wonder how /v/ developed there.”

    Off the “u” following the lost “c”.

    “Grive developed, for obscure reasons, the slang sense ‘war; army; corps de garde,’ ”

    It would certainly have been a long, strange semantic trip. I wonder if there is some homophony (with some word I don’t know) between a word for a military formation and “thrush”.

  4. Eli Nelson says:

    @Jim (another one):

    But didn’t Classical Latin “u” become Vulgar Latin “o”, which was subsequently lost in French? I’m only vaguely familiar with the relevant sound changes, but I’d expect something like Classical Latin graecum > VL grɛko > grɛgə > grɛə > French grié or something like that. But there do seem to be other words that shows a similar sound change, such as Old French cieu from Latin caecus and juif from Latin judaeus. I found a book from 1873, “An etymological dictionary of the French language” by Auguste Brachet (translated by George William), that says there was no explanation of the development at that time (p. lxxviii), but perhaps more progress has been made since then.

  5. The expression “saoul comme une grive” dates back to the 15th century, supposedly because thrushes love grapes. Perhaps soldiers, too, were often as drunk as thrushes?

  6. Very likely!

  7. Eli Nelson says:

    Oh, I did find a more recent paper that mentions it. “‘Locus’ in Gallo-Roman” by Edwin H. Tuttle and T. A. Jenkins (1917) describes a northern French sound change of graecu > *grieɣo > *griewo > grieu which is compared to a change of rogare > *roɣar > *rowar > rover. So apparently it is due to the Latin “u”, but via rounding induced by the vowel once it had turned to “o”.

  8. Jeffry A. House says:

    The association may be with a soldier’s uniform “au plumage blanc et brun” and perhaps their migration in flocks.

  9. The web returns the beginning of the song:

    Un soir, à la barrière,
    Un veau
    Tortillait son derrière
    Bien beau.

    Cited in Delvau’s Dictionnaire érotique moderne with attribution to “Vachette,” probably Eugène (1827-1802) the humorist (journalist, novelist, playwright) and café owner’s son.

  10. Merci beaucoup!

  11. Could rogue have come from that series of changes that gave us rover?

  12. English rogue is apparently unconnected with French rogue ‘arrogant’. The OED3 simply says “unknown”.

  13. The text I found looks like this.

    Un soir, à la barrière,
    Un veau
    Tortillait son derrière
    Bien beau.
    Vachette.

    I’d say, the last word actually makes sense if it’s continuation of the text of the poem rather than attribution.

    One evening, at the barrier,
    A calf
    Twisted its behind
    Very beautifully.
    It was female.

  14. Apparently, “veau” means, according to the dictionary Argoji of classical French slang, aptly made available on a site called russki-mat.net, prostitute, on account of the dull and languid quality of veal.

  15. I just now beefed up on langueō:

    # λαγαρός, λάγνος, λαγώς, λαγόνες, root lag; Gr. λαγαρός, λάγνος, lewd; Lat. laxare, lactes; cf. Sanscr. langa, prostitute; Gr. λαγώς, hare, λαγόνες, the flanks, womb #

  16. If veal is dull and languid, why is serving it the oldest profession in the world ?

    Are men proud of being able to turn sow’s ears into silk pussies ?

    This is all quite unfair to veal, let alone tofu.

  17. There was a Russian song with the first line “Have you heard how thrushes sing?”. Here it is. I’d say, it is exact opposite of a grivois song. It is a veal.

  18. Smothered in a thick cream sauce. Blanquette de veau.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    PIE *trozdo

    I’d be careful about reconstructing a PIE stem from such geographically limited evidence.

  20. Mallory and Adams call *trosdos a regional word (citing Latin, English, Lithuanian, Russian, and perhaps Greek strouthos).

  21. marie-lucie says:

    SFR: The text I found looks like this.

    Un soir, à la barrière,
    Un veau
    Tortillait son derrière
    Bien beau.
    Vachette.

    I’d say, the last word actually makes sense if it’s continuation of the text of the poem rather than attribution.

    One evening, at the barrier,
    A calf
    Twisted its behind
    Very beautifully.
    It was female.

    la barrière: This word probably refers to one of the gates which controlled access to the city of Paris at a time when it was still surrounded by high walls. Each gate had police and customs stations, the latter because commerce within the country was not free but large cities levied fees on some types of merchandise, especially (I think) alcohol. They could also control the quality of the goods, as fraud was rampant. (One of my great-grandfathers worked as a customs agent at one of the Paris gates and my father learned much from him about his work).

    Veau, vachette: I am not familiar with the alleged slang use of un veau to mean a prostitute, but vachette is not used for a young cow but for the leather made of its skin. Vachette is also unlikely as a synonym of veau in the context: une vache has long been a synonym for a policeman.

    In the quotation the word is used alone, something which makes it likely to be the author’s name rather than a noun referring to an animal.

    tortillait son derrière / bien beau: It was the derrière that was beautiful, not the sashaying motion. Beau could be an adverb in other contexts, but not here.

  22. la barrière: This word probably refers to one of the gates which controlled access to the city of Paris at a time when it was still surrounded by high walls

    As seen in the opera La Boheme, whose plot is loosely derived from a novel and play from 1840s Paris. One of its scenes is set at one of these gates.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Merci Gary!

  24. You can see some images here.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks LH, I had never seen those. I don’t know which of the gates my great-grandfather worked at, only that he lived in the Southwest corner and worked in the opposite corner. He walked to and from his work, taking about 3 hours each way.

  26. There are several “Barrieres” in Bordeaux located at important entry-points d’antan to the center city. A not unlikely spot for commerce that passes in the night.

  27. Russian “застава” translates to French as “barrière” (turnpike gate or toll gate in English), and a whole number of city squares marking the old city limits of Moscow are still called Zastava’s.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Dmitri: la barrière is a gate, not as specific as your “застава”. It can be a gate to a field, construction site, paying parking lot, or such, whether permanent or temporary.

  29. Jim (another one) says:

    Eli,

    “But didn’t Classical Latin “u” become Vulgar Latin “o”, which was subsequently lost in French?”

    1) This may occurred before that change and 2) it’s still a round vowel so it could have a “v” as a reflex.

    But I think you are right, it should have evolved the way you say. Dialect mixture? M-L?

  30. Dmitri: la barrière is a gate, not as specific as your “застава”. It can be a gate to a field, construction site, paying parking lot, or such, whether permanent or temporary.

    my point is that it is more specific than English “gate”, which could either be an entrance through a wall (~~ Fr. porte, Russ. vorota) or a contraption blocking the road (like railroad crossing gates or toll gates, like Fr. barrière or Russ. zastava ).
    Many cities and fortresses of the world have landmarks called gate / la porte, but apparently relatively few cities have landmarks called la barrière / застава.

  31. English gate originally meant the gap itself, whether in a wall or a fence, but already in OE times was applied to the thing that closed it, whether the fence was thickened to a wall, or weakened to an imaginary line with a road crossing it, whereby the gate was the realization of the imaginary line.

  32. January First-of-May says:

    Дядя Стёпа (Uncle Styopa), the extremely tall man from a classic Mikhalkov poem, is said to have lived at застава Ильича (i.e. zastava of Ilyich, i.e. Lenin).
    As a kid I was pretty sure that it must have been a very specific geographic description for someone living in the 1950s, when (I believe) the poem was written, but by the time of my own childhood in the 1990s I had no idea where it was exactly – I suspected Abel’manovskaya zastava near Taganskaya, more because my great aunt’s family lived there and I often visited them and less from any actual geography.
    (I also snickered at the combination – I knew that zastava was a very old thing and that they must have probably mostly gone out of use by the 20th century, so naming one after Ilyich felt funny.)

    Today, I’m less sure where exactly that was, and start to suspect that maybe it was a plausible-sounding name that Mikhalkov made up so that nobody would knock at the specific house and ask for Uncle Styopa, but it’s easily just as possible that it really was an actual landmark of 1930s Moscow (the section of the poem where it appears is set in the 1930s) that is simply less well known today.
    (If the former, I wonder whether the specific house number 8/1 there had ever existed, does it still survive [assuming it existed], and if it does, what the modern address is, and whether there’s any memorial plaque on that house today. For all I know it was really Mikhalkov’s personal house, or his publisher’s or whatever, and I just didn’t know the history and geography.)

    EDIT: I googled, the place really existed, it probably never had a 8/1 address, and in any case almost none of the nearby houses that would’ve been there in the 1930s still survive today.

  33. застава Ильича (i.e. zastava of Ilyich, i.e. Lenin).
    A whole slew of old photographs (and often great descriptions) are at the classic site where everyone looking for the past landmarks and dissappearing addresses should go:
    https://pastvu.com/p/4589

    The name застава Ильича kind of split up, with the square still keeping the застава part, and a subway station still keeping the Ильича part. And Shosse Entuziastov 8 is just off the square, BTW 🙂

  34. For those who are curious, it was the name of Площадь Рогожская Застава, named for the gate of the old Rogozhka district of Moscow, between 1923 and 1994.

  35. it was the name of Площадь Рогожская Застава, named for the gate of the old Rogozhka district of Moscow, between 1923 and 1994

    The housing compound of the German and Austrian watchmaking specialists hired by my great-grandfather in towns like Ruhla, Gera and Glashütte was just a few blocks away at Tovarischesky lane, but the 1st Watch factory itself was closer to the next zastava of the former city limit (Krestyanskaya Zastava), more than a mile away. Of the (heavily industrial) ex-Rogozhsky district, I only recall the freshly baked doughnut shop by the overpass of Hammer and Sickle Station. Warm and greasy, generously sprinkled by confectioner’s sugar, sold by weight or maybe by dozen in large bags, with a sliver of rough brown wrapping paper instead of a napkin …mmm delicious.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Jim (another one): But didn’t Classical Latin “u” become Vulgar Latin “o”, which was subsequently lost in French?” ….. Dialect mixture? M-L?

    Sorry Jim, I have no idea. Where is Etienne? He is the Romance specialist, I am not. (I know some of the widespread changes, not the exceptional ones).

  37. You called? (INSERT LONE RANGER THEME HERE)

    I haven’t written anything so far because I too am more than a little baffled as to the phonological changes which could have turned GRAECUM into GRIVE. Eli and Jim are quite correct that Latin final SHORT /u/ shifts to /o/ in French and other Italo-Western Romance varieties (Italo-Western being, indeed, defined as the Romance subgroup wherein Latin short /u/ and long /o/ merge as /o/, and Latin short /i/ and long /e/ merge as /e/), and is then dropped in French and in several neighboring varieties. For this vowel to yield a /v/ + schwa in Old French is certainly not the expected sound change (compare French AMI, not *AMIVE, from Latin AMICUM).

  38. David Marjanović says:

    And assuming graius instead of graecus doesn’t help either, does it?

  39. Eli Nelson says:

    Well, the CNRTL says “grive” is supposed to be derived as the feminine of “grieu, griu” (<graecus), so that explains the final "e" in a way.

  40. Eli: it explains the final schwa, but where did the /v/ come from? As the example of AMI from AMICUM shows, we should have a masculine form */gri/ or /gre/. Some special explanation is required. David: I don’t see how GRAIUS could yield the right form either.

  41. Eli Nelson says:

    @Etienne: Right, the /v/ doesn’t seem regular. The Tuttle and Jenkins (1917) article I mentioned earlier said it is from a “northern France” sound change of Vulgar Latin [ɣ] to [w] before [o]; the resulting [w] is supposed to have remained a semivowel up until the loss of final [o], giving masculine forms like gri(e)u, but later become a fricative intervocalically, giving feminine forms like grive.

    A somewhat similar example seems to be juif~juive < judaeus, one of the examples listed in Brachet (1873). In modern French the masculine ends in /f/, but CNRTL actually says that “La forme juif a été refaite sur le fém. juive, juiue de l’a. fr. juiu”, so apparently this is just due to later processes of analogy. This word would never have had [ɣ] anyway, so the [w] would have to be explained as an epenthetic glide before the [o] of the masculine form. It’s weird that if this is the right explanation, the word would have undergone leveling twice, first in favor of the masculine form, and next in favor of the feminine form.

    Tuttle and Jenkins do actually mention ami; the development they propose is ami < *amiü < *amiu < *amiwo, which they say shows assimilation (I think they mean of [w] or [u̯] to the frontness and rounding of a preceding [i]) of the kind seen in aïe < adiūtat and fiz < fiuts < filts. I'm not sure about that last example, since I never knew there was evidence that /l/ was vocalized to [w] after [i] in the first place.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    It’s weird that if this is the right explanation, the word would have undergone leveling twice, first in favor of the masculine form, and next in favor of the feminine form.

    No weirder than what has happened to “shoe” in my dialect, where both the singular and the plural now end in /xː/.

  43. For the treatment of Proto-Romance *–ĕcum in Old French grieu, griu, compare Latin caecum yielding Old French cieu, “blind”. This word has been ousted by aveugle, but in this connection, note also the modern word civelle, “elver”, for phonological and morphological parallels to grive. Perhaps elver were called “little blind ones” because they resemble blindworms?

  44. marie-lucie says:

    la pie-grièche

    La pie (from Latin pica) is the English magpie, but with the addition of grièche the new word refers to a small, thrush-like bird of prey with a toothed beak, a word for which it is very difficult (thus far) to find an English equivalent. In French it seems to be (or have been) used more often to refer to a disagreeable woman than to a bird. The reason I mention it here is that grièche is most likely derived from Latin graeca ‘Greek (fem)’. The TLFI implies that it was a feminine form of the masculine adjective griois or grieu ‘Greek (masc)’, on which the feminine noun grive ‘thrush’ was reformed.

    About the gastronomic desirability of thrushes: there is still a French proverb Faute de grives, on mange des merles ‘Lacking thrushes, one eats blackbirds’, implying ‘Be content with second choices, even if not very desirable’.

  45. Pie-grièche is “shrike”—the butcher bird mentioned in the LH post two days after this post is a shrike, too. How is that for a coincidence!

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Xerîb! Where did you find the English word? I guess I did not search long enough.

  47. La pie (from Latin pica) is the English magpie, but with the addition of grièche the new word refers to a small, thrush-like bird of prey with a toothed beak

    Funny that the bird is also associatied with the magpie in Russian (сорока soroka and сорокопут sorokoput). Swedish and Danish (Sv törnskata (törne + skata), Dk tornskade (torn + skade) “spine + magpie”) at least.

  48. Marie-Lucie, in the case of pie-grièche, the Wikipédie was very useful for finding what members of the genus Lanius were called in other languages, by going to the related pages in Wikipedias in other languages listed at the side—including the page for Lanius collurio, which in German goes by the splendidly macabre name Neuntöter.

    (And I also discovered that in Occitan, the shrike has interesting names like tarnagàs.)

  49. going to the related pages in Wikipedias in other languages listed at the side

    This is my fallback technique for discovering what things are called; it’s quicker than going to a dictionary.

  50. For me, the mystery is a hundred tongues, which is the name of different birds in different languages:
    mozu モズ(百舌[3]、百舌鳥[3]、鵙[3]、学名 Lanius bucephalus Temminck & Schlegel, 1847)は、スズメ目モズ科モズ属に分類される鳥類。
    satakieli, which is the Finnish for “nightingale”,
    and one of the names for the blackbird in Chinese:
    烏鶇(學名:Turdus merula),俗名反舌、黑鸟、中国黑鸫、百舌、乌吸,

  51. Trond Engen says:

    Could grive be a (diminutive) feminine of the grif implied by griffon?

  52. Trond Engen says:

    I mean, it’s being confused with vultures in many languages. The grive could have been added for its habits.

  53. David Marjanović says:

    a hundred tongues

    Nightingales have a large voice range, and blackbirds imitate a lot.

  54. Scandinavian skade refers to the long narrow tail, a feature shared by the magpie, the shrike and the skate (cartilaginous fish); cf L scatēre; from a root meaning ‘spring forth’ vel sim.

  55. In fact, ‘hundred tongues’ is not the name of the shrikes in Japanese. The Chinese characters 百舌 and 百舌鳥 are used to write the Japanese word mozu, meaning ‘shrike’. 百舌 and 百舌鳥 would have been the Chinese names for a type of bird, and it is believed that this was the Blackbird. The Japanese simply used these names, as written in Chinese characters, to write mozu. For some reason they appear to have identified 百舌 with the shrikes rather than the Blackbird.

    Curiously, the Vietnamese borrowed the very similar Chinese term 百声 bǎi shēng ‘hundred voices’ as bách thanh, and use it for the shrikes.

  56. Eli Nelson: It’s weird that if this is the right explanation, the word would have undergone leveling twice, first in favor of the masculine form, and next in favor of the feminine form.

    I think this might actually be the key? In languagehat’s original article, it mentions how the word is first used to mean soldier, and then to mean someone with easy morals. This might have changed the colloquial perspective of the word from masculine to feminine, especially considering the era and the frequency with which some soldiers associated with ladies of the night, allowing the appropriate leveling to occur.

  57. As I understand it, prostitutes are called veal (it is so in English too) because they tend to be young: disease, violence, and the quite-unfounded prejudice against older women so well refuted by Benjamin Franklin makes seniority in the profession quite unlikely.

  58. There are and always have been plenty of older prostitutes, but they tend not to hang out on brightly lit corners and are not part of the popular image of the prostitute.

  59. Well, Mr Wayne Rooney – a foopballer of this parish – did a lot to promote a lady fondly-professionally known as Auld Slapper.

Speak Your Mind

*