I’m getting close to the end of A Sentimental Journey, and it continues to educate me about English words. In the chapter “The Supper,” his horse loses a couple of shoes in “the ascent of mount Taurira” (anybody have any idea what that might be? there’s a village called Tarare in the general vicinity, but a village isn’t a mountain and Tarare isn’t Taurira) and the narrator decides to go to a nearby farmhouse: “It was about eight in the evening when I got to the house—so I left the postilion to manage his point as he could—and for mine, I walk’d directly into the house.” I didn’t understand the use of “point” here, but the OED soon enlightened me: “7. a. A condition, state, situation, or plight. Freq. with modifying word specifying the type of situation or plight (as good, evil, etc.). Now hist.” A couple of representative quotations: 1733 Pope Ess. Man i. 277 “Know thy own Point..this due degree Of blindness, weakness, Heav’n bestows on thee.” 1896 Dict. National Biogr. at Robert II, “Robert, perhaps really averse to war,..retired to the highlands, ‘because he was not,’ says Froissart, ‘in good point to ride in warfare.’” (I suspect that by 1896 the phrase “in good point” had become fossilized, and nobody but antiquarians would have been able to explain the original sense.)

Addendum. When Sterne writes, a bit later, “The peasants had been all day at work in removing a fragment of this kind between St. Michael and Madane,” the places in question are clearly Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne and Modane. The latter is a particularly annoying error, so I thought I’d share the fruits of my research for fellow geography hounds.

Addendum the Last. I have finished the book, and the only complaint I have about it is the dreadful “wink wink, nudge nudge” approach to everything having to do with what Sterne inevitably refers to as “the fair sex.” I understand that it reflects the state of gender relations in his day, but my, it becomes tiresome. “There was but one point forgot in this treaty, and that was the manner in which the lady and myself should be obliged to undress and get to bed; – there was but one way of doing it, and that I leave to the reader to devise; protesting as I do it, that if it is not the most delicate in nature, ’tis the fault of his own imagination…” Fie, sir. Fie, I say.


  1. Diane Nicholls says

    ’embonpoint’ from French ‘en bon point’ meaning in good condition, survives, of course, though with a primary sense of ‘plumpness’.

  2. To ride point is to be the front rider in a row or group of (horseback) riders.

  3. Political journalists’ usage of “point man” (eg., “the government’s point man on the Syria file”) seems to combine aspects of the forward rider mentioned by AJPBD, and OED 7(a) “plight” – since the point man is supposed to be leading the effort to solve some problem.

  4. Earthtopus says

    The “point guard” running a basketball team’s offense definitely seems to involve the “leading” element only. Unless it’s a comeback attempt.

  5. From Google Books searches it looks like “Tarare mountain” or “Mount Tarare” was a term for the rise and fall in elevation between Roanne and Tarare on the Paris-Lyon road.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    How old an edition are you reading? Is “Madane” Sterne’s error (to the extent “error” is an appropriate word for an age of looser orthographic consistency than ours) or that of some subsequent typesetter? One can certainly find 19th century guidebooks referring to “Modane” as that place visited by Sterne, so it’s an issue that could have been silently corrected in later editions had anyone cared.

  7. It raises a grin, your complaining of his prim language and then writing “gender relations”. I’ll do you the honour, Sir, of considering it wry.

  8. Hey, I thought Sterne was being funny when he wrote that, and I myself think it’s funny. Honi soit qui mal y pense is his general attitude to a lot of things.
    Speaking of which, are you still working through the Aubrey-Maturin series? And if so (or even if not), what sense do you make of O’Brian’s use of censoring dashes? One moment he’s saying things like “trembling like a fucking jelly”, and the next it’s “— —ing”.

  9. @dearieme: Maybe “prim” means something different to you than it does to me? Because I wouldn’t consider Sterne “prim” here; he’s pointedly alluding to sex, and (as John Cowan says) trying to be funny about it.

  10. Sterne uses the word “gender” in A Sentimental Journey, as follows. It is when Yorick hires a servant to accompany him in his travels:
    I am apt to be taken with all kinds of people at first sight; but never more so than when a poor devil comes to offer his service to so poor a devil as myself; and as I know this weakness, I always suffer my judgment to draw back something on that very account, – and this more or less, according to the mood I am in, and the case; – and I may add, the gender too, of the person I am to govern.
    This struck me when I read it yesterday, because I had the idea that “gender” did not mean “sex” until recent times. The pun on the grammatical terms mood/case/gender went right over my head the first time (I am embarrassed to say), so I am glad that dearieme’s comment has prompted me to reread the passage.

  11. He does call women “the fair sex”, but at least once he also calls them simply “the sex”, like Bertie Wooster.

  12. Hey, I thought Sterne was being funny when he wrote that, and I myself think it’s funny.
    Well, sure he’s being funny, as are the wink wink, nudge nudge comedians. The problem is (and it’s not Sterne’s fault) that it was impossible to speak more straightforwardly, so there really isn’t any other option, except of course the flowery excursuses upon the beauty and purity &c &c of some fair maid whom he casts chaste eyes at, which becomes equally tiresome to me. I would rather he had written about other things.
    dearieme: What would you prefer in place of (what strikes me as the perfectly ordinary phrase) “gender relations”? Perhaps “relations between the sexes”? How exactly do the added three syllables improve matters?

  13. I can just imagine the explosion Hat will have at the last word, or rather the last punctuation mark.

  14. Eh, I have nothing against dashes.

  15. marie-lucie says

    Ø : the fair sex … “the sex”, like Bertie Wooster
    In 18th century French it was common to refer to women and girls as les personnes du sexe, meaning du sexe féminin. Of course the male sex never needed to be specified as men apparently considered themselves as the default humans (and many of them they still do).

  16. The default humans
    Haha. Brilliant, m-l.

  17. I thoroughly enjoyed the bit early on about the narrator’s encounter with a woman near the remise. It was not so much wink-wink nudge-nudge as charmingly introspective in its slo-mo treatment of the interaction between these two strangers.
    the last word, or rather the last punctuation mark
    Hat, there was a lot of winking and nudging in the last sentence, though, yes?– independent of punctuation. It was one of those moments of the kind that annoyed you?

  18. I’m confused. Am I hopelessly out of date for thinking of women as the fair sex?

  19. marie-lucie says

    Bathrobe, the point is that “the fair sex” became just “the sex”. And if women were “the fair sex”, were men “the unfair sex”? “the ugly sex”? Most men did not care how they might appear to women, whose opinion in the matter did not count, or at least not for much.

  20. To return to the point —
    ‘To ride point’, ‘point man’, ‘point guard’: I’ve considered these to have a military origin.

  21. I thought the preferred term was “person(s) of gender”?

  22. This struck me when I read it yesterday, because I had the idea that “gender” did not mean “sex” until recent times. The pun on the grammatical terms mood/case/gender went right over my head the first time…
    There’s an epigram by Palladas (fl. 4th century AD) in the Greek Anthology, where he jokes about a grammarian’s daughter giving birth to three children: one masculine, one feminine and one neuter. I’ll have to see if I can find it online (can’t type Greek on my keyboard).

  23. I tell a lie. Managed to find it AP 9.489):
    Γραμματικού θυγατηρ ἔτεκεν φιλότητι μιγεῖσα
    παιδίον αρσενικόν, θηλυκόν, ουδέτερον.
    It may have inspired this epigram by Ausonius:
    Rufus vocatus rhetor olim ad nuptias.
    Celebri ut fit in convivio,
    grammaticae ut artis se peritum ostenderet,
    haec vota dixit nuptiis:
    “et masculini et feminini gignite
    generisque neutri filios”.

  24. “But wooman, lovely wooman,” said Mr. Turveydrop with very disagreeable gallantry, “what a sex you are!” (Dickens, Bleak House)

  25. Am I hopelessly out of date for thinking of women as the fair sex?
    I’m afraid you are, in that I doubt anyone born within the last half-century or so does so (and those born within the last few decades may well never have heard the phrase). But those of us who are out of date may as well resign ourselves to it, because trying to hide the fact simply makes us look silly. (I remember middle-aged folk in the ’60s trying to deploy the term “groovy”…)

  26. Not-entirely-off-topic: Is it true that obscene books in the Cambridge library have a ‘ Ø ‘ in their catalog designations?

  27. Yeah, the isn’t-it-funny?-smugness of sexist assumptions–the assumptions themselves–are the most tiresome part of the whole mindset.
    I won’t even go into Akin….(sigh).

  28. The point (I assume) was that he didn’t want to bother putting the shoe back on while Sterne did.

  29. Your comment (and thanks for reviving this interesting thread!) inspired me to go back and check the context, and I’m glad I did; here are the first two paragraphs of the chapter (bold added):

    A shoe coming loose from the fore foot of the thillhorse, at the beginning of the ascent of mount Taurira, the postilion dismounted, twisted the shoe off, and put it in his pocket; as the ascent was of five or six miles, and that horse our main dependence, I made a point of having the shoe fasten’d on again, as well as we could; but the postilion had thrown away the nails, and the hammer in the chaise-box being of no great use without them, I submitted to go on.

    He had not mounted half a mile higher, when coming to a flinty piece of road, the poor devil lost a second shoe, and from off his other fore foot. I then got out of the chaise in good earnest; and seeing a house about a quarter of a mile to the left hand, with a great deal to do I prevailed upon the postilion to turn up to it. The look of the house, and of everything about it, as we drew nearer, soon reconciled me to the disaster.—It was a little farm-house, surrounded with about twenty acres of vineyard, about as much corn—and close to the house, on one side, was a potagerie of an acre and a half, full of everything which could make plenty in a French peasant’s house—and on the other side was a little wood, which furnish’d wherewithal to dress it. It was about eight in the evening when I got to the house—so I left the postilion to manage his point as he could—and for mine, I walk’d directly into the house.

    I had previously entirely failed to notice the repetition of “point” — a fine example of Sterne’s wordplay.

  30. And note that lovely IE word thill.

  31. OE sez “Of uncertain origin: the 14th cent. þille, þylle is identical in form with Old English þille, glossed tabulāta, tabulāmen, tabulāmentum, i.e. ‘board, deal, boarding, flooring’, but the sense ‘pole or shaft’ is so different that, without further evidence, it seems unsafe to connect them.”

  32. without further evidence, it seems unsafe to connect them

    A useful caution in the building trades as well as in etymology.

  33. Hah! Two quiescent threads mentioning Sterne get woken up within 24 hours of each other.

    Is postil(l)ion functioning as just a rôle here? Or is there some sort of japery going on — as with postillions struck by lightning. You can never quite be sure with Sterne, which is why reading him is so delicious.

    Translating to C21st English would presumably eliminate the word altogether as being archaic.

    he’s being funny, as are the wink wink, nudge nudge comedians.

    Yeah, one of the regrettable bits in Tristram Shandy is all the byplay between Uncle Toby and Widow Wadman. The movie seemed to promote that from byplay to the main course, and make it even less subtle. I will never forgive Steve Coogan (not that I had a high opinion of him to start with).

    It’s always been said Tristram Shandy is untranslatable to the screen. Coogan pretty much proved it. Gilian Anderson I would have thought had more sense.

  34. David Marjanović says

    ‘board, deal, boarding, flooring’

    Ah, Diele, regional German for “entrance room, corridor/aisle”. Another such word is Flur, presumably cognate with floor – though that also designates a kind of landscape (I’m not sure what exactly).

    The “part of a cart” word is Deichsel.

  35. Another such word is Flur, presumably cognate with floor – though that also designates a kind of landscape (I’m not sure what exactly).

    Die Flur. Fields/meadows, as well as specific agricultural ones demarcated by authorities. Flurbereinigung is one kind of “land reform” (another kind is expropriation).

    Flurbereinigung (Österreich)

    Der Hagel hat großen Schaden auf den Fluren angerichtet

  36. Flurbereinigung was one of the tools used by Napoléon to bring down the Holy Roman Empire.

    # [1803] Insgesamt reduzierte sich bei dieser sog. Napoleonischen Flurbereinigung die Zahl der Territorien von mehreren hundert auf etwa vierunddreißig; über drei Millionen Menschen bekamen neue Landesherren.

    Gewinner dieser Vorgänge waren u.a. die süddeutschen Staaten Baden, Württemberg und Bayern, die teilweise überproportional entschädigt wurden. Mit diesen Geschenken versuchte Napoleon diese Herrscher aus dem alten Reichsverband zu lösen und in eine anti-habsburgische Front einzubinden. Der Habsburger Kaiser Franz II., der außerdem mit den geistlichen Fürsten und Reichsstädten seine Hauptstützen im Reich verloren hatte, legte 1806 die Krone nieder. Damit endete die fast 900jährige Geschichte des Heiligen Römischen Reichs deutscher Nation.

  37. Ah, Diele, regional German for “entrance room, corridor/aisle”
    More closely to the English, it can also mean “(long and narrow) floorboard”; Duden has this as the first meanning.

  38. David Marjanović says

    Oh yes, I forgot. (Both Diele and Flur in any meaning are far from my active vocabulary.)

  39. Thill is pretty far from almost anybody’s active vocabulary, except users of horse-drawn carts and Indo-Europeanists, both definitely minority interests. By the way, Wikt doesn’t hesitate to derive the ME form from the OE one; ‘long thin piece of wood’ is the common semantic. A doublet from Low German is deal ‘wood that is easily cut, e.g. from conifers’, often applied to wood for cheap coffins or to the coffins themselves. This is unrelated to deal ‘portion; apportion’.

    An interesting Wikt quotation for thill is Elihu Burritt’s Walks in the Black Country and its green border-land (1868), p. 310 of the 1e, 274 of the 2e linked above, PDF p. 293: “As for one of the great four-wheeled wagons used here, thilled instead of poled, an American farmer would hardly think of dragging it up a hill empty with a single horse.” The point Elihu is making is that English wagons are overwhelmingly heavy and the horses pulling them are in single file with half a horse-length between them, both sources of great inefficiency on good roads, and he makes a point that British roads are the best in the world. But what the difference between a thilled wagon and a poled one is, he does not say, assuming the reader already knows. It is clear, however, that the thill-horse is the rearmost horse in the file, the one placed between the thills.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    ‘long thin piece of wood’ is the common semantic.

    Evidently a loan from Western Oti-Volta (cf Toende Kusaal til, Farefare tille “tree trunk.”)
    Plainly borrowed before the operation of Grimm’s Law …

  41. I’ve often run across “deal table” in English novels.

  42. Me too, and I never had any idea what exactly it meant.

  43. I’ve often run across “deal table” in English novels.

    Oh, I’m surprised at your surprise. My grandparents had a deal table in their kitchen/scullery — as opposed to the mahogany-style dining table with scalloped edges.

    My parents had a deal kitchen table from their first flat; later resurfaced with ‘Formica’ — as opposed to the dark-stained spindly/elegant ‘utility furniture’ dining table. When I first owned a house, we bought a deal kitchen/dining table — made from nondescript Eastern European (Yugoslavian?) whitewood.

    So is ‘deal’ not a thing your side of the Atlantic? What’s the word for generic soft pine/whitewood used for cheap furniture — that is, before there was chipboard/contiboard?

  44. David Marjanović says

    What’s the word for generic soft pine/whitewood used for cheap furniture —

    “Wood”? I’m surprised there would be a special word for this.

  45. Sounds as if you grew up exclusively on one side of the tracks. Either you saw mahogany sideboards everywhere, or never saw them.

    More probably you never did anything that encouraged knowledge of different kinds of wood and their properties. That’s my case: I recognize balsa wood from rubber-band-powered toy airplanes I had as a kid. Otherwise, I can’t distinguish beech from ash, or either from pine.

    I’m still hazy on female reproductive apparatus. Thank goodness for Wikipedia ! For some reason I think I could take delivery of a deal table as well as of a baby, but would try only if no one more knowledgeable were around. Barring complications, of course: it might be chipboard instead of deal, or a breech position. In fact I avoid such situations, because I actually know nothing about them.

  46. David Marjanović says

    No, no, I can tell the wood of some tree species, and I have no trouble using that to refer to furniture for disambiguation or to point out how beautiful it is. I’m also not entirely unfamiliar with the cover terms Hartholz & Weichholz, but I’d only use those when actually talking about the properties of wood. That’s why I’m so surprised at seeing “a deal table”, “a deal kitchen table” and suchlike used as active vocabulary.

  47. Yeah, I might say “a pine table” but “a deal table” sounds foreign.

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    I would happily say “a deal table” – if I were actually capable of recognising such things.

  49. I have just discovered that the old massive table I have used as a desk for decades may be a deal table. Or a “pine table makeover”, whatever that is.

  50. Lars Mathiesen says

    FWIW, the distinction is something people here are aware of, but I don’t think there are words that divide up the semantic space the same way. The assumption is that deciduous species (løvtræ) have harder and better wood, while conifer wood (nåletræ) is cheap and soft, but you don’t see those as descriptors for furniture; it usually says gran or fyr or bøg and so on, people still know trees here. Larch can be pretty, though.

    There is ædeltræ ~ ‘noble wood’ but that is not just your old beech (which I suppose is a hardwood), it’s the stuff with pretty patterns and colours: Mahogany, teak, birds’-eye maple, and also oak because it’s slow growing and precious and wears extremely well.

    Also I see that hardwood from tropical deforestation is sold as hårdttræ for patio furniture (because nobody knows the species and it’s not the same in the next batch anyway), but I’m pretty sure that’s a newer loan translation from English.

  51. similarly to DM, i’ve never met “deal” in this sense outside not-very-recent british novels (for refernece: used my first power tools and made my first piece of furniture at 10, have been making things out of wood ever since). i think part of it is that here in the states the default wood is pretty much always pine or another soft / quickgrowing conifer. in my experience, unless the material is the subject or the folks talking do some carpentry, only a few hardwoods (and especially fruittree woods) get referred to here as part of describing something made from them, and then it’s usually about color or connoisseurship: “a cherry table”, “an oak chest”, “a mahogany sideboard”, with the real estate standard “hardwood floors” as a particular case.

    “parquet” may be the closest thing to “deal” i’ve heard in regular use – but that may be because of growing up in the boston celtics’ radio sphere, which would somehow manage to mention the boston garden’s parquet floor multiple times a game.

  52. ‘hardwood’ vs ‘softwood’ is a botanist’s technical distinction to do with angiosperm vs gymnosperm [wikp]. Balsa is classified as a hardwood despite the wood itself being very soft; it is the softest commercial hardwood … [wikp] — IOW hard/softwood is a useless distinction in furniture appreciation.

    I continue to be surprised how little-known is ‘deal’ in these parts. It’s whitish; it’s soft (not necessarily a softwood species); it’s fast-growing which means the grain is wide-spaced, and probably with quite a few knots; it’s cheap (because it’s fast-growing).

    It’s probably pine — but note some native pine species in NZ (like Rimu aka ‘Red Pine’) are neither white nor soft nor fast-growing.

    Then using ‘deal’ avoids needing to be an expert on species: ‘deal’ refers to appearance and usage/cheapness. @DE if it looks like ‘deal’, it is deal. Whereas @Hat it quite possibly is _not_ pine. @Stu that pic is clearly a deal table. The ‘makeover’ would be the dark-stained legs/undersides: they’ll be made from the same wood as the top; but from the poorer-quality timber: the staining hides a multitude of sins. I see the occasional knot in the top, and the different-coloured striping — which is sapwood.

    I see @Lars mentioning outdoor furniture: deal is no good for that; it discolours in sunlight; it rots in the wet. It stains terribly if you don’t apply lacquer/wax to it copiously. OTOH ‘Kahikatea’ aka White Pine is superb: Māori traditionally used it to make waka (canoes) — but outrageously expensive these days for mere furniture.

    Up-thread I mention “mahogany-style”. @Stu I was not suggesting actual mahogany (I doubt my grandparents could afford that). It was close-grained (could have been a slower-growing pine) and probably stained.

  53. PlasticPaddy says
    says “everything” (varnish is not mentioned!) but distemper is possible for garden furniture (made from treated pine, footnote 10) but paint and wood oil are most suitable. Is wood oil applied as a varnish or only as a thin rubbing that has to be renewed at intervals, depending on environmental factors, e.g., heat and humidity?

  54. Whereas @Hat it quite possibly is _not_ pine.

    I didn’t say it was; I said that I might say something was made of pine but it would never occur to me to call something “deal” — it’s simply not part of my active vocabulary.

  55. Lars Mathiesen says

    @AntC, as far as I can see the gymnosperm/angiosperm divide coincides exactly with the conifer/deciduous one when talking about timber-producing trees in temperate climates. I don’t know what a Danish timber merchant would do if offered a load of Gingko biloba timber (a non-coniferous gymnosperm suitable for furniture).

    And as I tried to say, hårdttræ is compositionally = hardwood, though I would leave out the (neuter) definite inflection on the first stem; but it’s a term of art for stuff that won’t rot on your patio. And Danish winters are long, wet and more thaw than freeze, so that’s probably a tough demand)

    FWIW, I once bought a wooden spatula of some unidentified wood that was covered in mold the first time I took it out of the dishwasher. Not patio material.

  56. Wooden implements in the dishwasher? Tsk, tsk…

  57. That was my thought as well. Although there’s nothing wrong with a woody in the dickwasher.

  58. Lars Mathiesen says

    I know better than putting wood or bone in the dishwasher if I don’t want it to dry out like it’s been in the sun forever. But for a one-dollar thing that I just bought to avoid the sound of metal on metal when stirring onions and stuff in the frying pan, I expected it to die from other causes before alkali burn would be visible. Though not mold.

    (I suppose that the mycelium may have been in the wood from before it was cut down; in the old days when timber was dried for five years instead of five hours, that would have been caught before it was used).

  59. I put cheapish wooden spatulas in the dishwasher, and I’ve done so since I stopped washing up by hand when I developed an exema (now mostly disappeared) while working on our house more than 20 years ago. The spatulas last for years. The first wooden spatula we got is still on the household cycle, I think.

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