As I said here, my wife and I are reading Life: A User’s Manual, and we’re enjoying it a lot even though we have to take on faith that all the seemingly unrelated bits and pieces will add up at the end. The translation reads very well (and is faithful, as far as I can tell by checking occasionally against the French), but occasionally I question the translator’s choice of words. In Chapter 19 (“Altamont, 1”), for example, Perec describes a panorama “showing life in India as it was popularly imagined in the second half of the nineteenth century,” one of whose sections portrays “a clearing beside a marigot in which three elephants disport themselves at spraying each other.” I stumbled to a halt in mid-sentence, not having the faintest idea how to pronounce “marigot,” let alone what it meant. It was not in my trusty Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, so I had to turn to the OED, where it is defined as “In West Africa: a side channel of a river.” The first citation is from 1759 (tr. M. Adanson Voy. Senegal 45 “Before I could get thither, I was obliged to cross two marigots: these are rivulets with which the whole country is intersected”), and the etymology (revised as of June 2008) reads:

[< French marigot watercourse, body of water (in Africa), of unknown origin.
  According to Trésor de la Langue Française the French word was first used in the Antilles (1654 in a place name, 1688 as noun). The Inventaire des Particularités Lexicales du Français en Afrique Noire (1983) shows that the word is used in all francophone countries of West Africa, which perhaps suggests origin in an African language.]

And for a pronunciation it offers “Brit. /ˈmarɪgɒt/, /ˈmarɪgəʊ/, U.S. /ˈmɛrəgɑt/, /ˈmɛrəgoʊ/”—basically, the stress is on the first syllable and you can pronounce the final one with the t (anglicized) or without (french-fried).

The problem with that is that I don’t believe them. Who exactly is using this anglicized pronunciation? All their citations treat it as a foreign word, italicizing it or (in one case) putting it between quotes. It’s clearly a French word used only by those who have occasion to talk about waterways in West Africa, and presumably those people pronounce it à la française, at least to the extent of making the final syllable “go” rather than “got.” I’m guessing the OED has a system that automatically provides both forms for all borrowings that haven’t been fully absorbed, and they didn’t check with actual speakers. But then, how could they? If you stop a hundred English-speakers on the street and ask them how they pronounce “marigot,” ninety of them will shrug their shoulders, nine of them will change the subject to politics or hit you up for a loan, and one will turn and run. This is an English word only by courtesy.

Which brings me to the problem with the translation. Yes, the French text has marigot, but in French it’s an actual word, even if an exotic one; in fact, it is in my Collins Robert French Dictionary, defined as “backwater, creek.” And there’s a French Wikipedia article that describes them (and shows a picture of the Marigot du Djoudj, with pelicans), adding “Le terme ‘marigot’ est parfois employé métaphoriquement pour suggérer des activités plus ou moins occultes, en eaux troubles.” In short, however tempting it may have been to keep the French term because it does exist in English, in practice it’s a faux ami, since nobody but West Africa specialists knows of its existence, and it should have been rendered by “creek” or the like (especially since the scene described is not in Africa).

A few pages later, at the start of Chapter 21 (“In the Boiler Room, 1”), there’s a similar problem. A man is described as wearing “a sky-blue tergal shirt,” and once again the word was unknown to me and to Merriam-Webster. The OED capitalizes it and defines it as “A proprietary name for polyester fibre and fabrics,” and apparently it’s known in the U.K., since there are citations like “The airflow is ducted to ten individual neoprene-coated tergal skirts (1968) and “My dark blue Tergal trousers” (1973), so I can’t fault David Bellos for using it, but I wish he’d been more considerate of his transatlantic readers and rendered it “polyester” or “Dacron.” French Wikipedia provides this historical information: “En France, la fibre polyester est apparue en 1954 sous la marque Tergal (équivalent du Dacron de Dupont de Nemours), créée par la firme Rhodiaceta. Pour la petite histoire Tergal est formé de « Ter » (pour polyester) et « gal » (pour gallicus), c’est en somme le polyester gaulois.”

I am, of course, curious as to whether my readers know these words, especially “marigot”—I assume many non-Yanks are familiar with “tergal.”


  1. Well, Bellos just taught you (and me) a couple of new words; you should be grateful for these glimpses of the Beyond.

  2. Oh, I am, I am!

  3. Here’s another word of very limited use: “polymesmeric”. 80%+ of the Google hits refer to a jacket blurb on Catch-22: “The polymesmeric novel you won’t forget”. I’m not sure that that isn’t the source — all of the other uses seem to be from people who probably read Catch-22. There’s one seeming advertisement for polymesmeric speaker cables, but it’s a joke. One etymologized use referred back to mesmerism. But people are invited to research this unimportant question.

  4. A “side channel of a river” sounds a lot like what I would call a yazoo stream.

  5. Marigot may be a French word, but to this French speaker, _La Vie Mode d’Emploi_ is probably the only place I have ever met the word… The book is filled with very rare words !

  6. Tergal is the adjective for tergum, Which explains tergal shirts, skirts, and trousers. I admit it’s a bit pleonastic.

  7. David Bellos says

    I am truly delighted to have such meticulous readers, nearly a quarter of a century since I translated that wonderful book! I cannot now remember what reasoning led me to keep “marigot” in place of “creek”, but I most certainly kept “tergal” because it was a word well known to me at that time – I had had tergal trousers and known the word since childhood. The text was copy-edited by a wonderfully pernickety American editor; I trusted her entirely to eliminate any objectionable Britishisms, and she didn’t jib at tergal or marigot.
    When I first read Life A User’s Manual I thought that it was consciously designed as a means of including every word in the Grand Larousse Encyclopedique. That turned out to be not its most secret design, but it was a plan that Perec had for another (unwritten) book.
    I certainly think that one of the many pleasures it provides is that of learning a vast range of terms we only ever come across once in a lifetime. As you read on you will meet many more strange and rare words, and most of them are entirely genuine. If you can spot the forgeries, hats off!
    I should also mention that a revised, corrected, twentieth anniversary edition will be appearing with D R Godine later this year (probably August), so if you spot any real typos or mistakes — sorry, you’re too late!

  8. Let’s not forget that India, or parts of it, were also once part of La Francophonie, and that it may not be quite absurd to use a term that is now mostly confined to francophone Africa to describe a scene in India.
    Also, “creek” in BrE seems to mean primarily “arm of the sea” rather than “stream”.

  9. mollymooly says

    Also, “creek” in BrE seems to mean primarily “arm of the sea” rather than “stream”.

    And even more so in India.

  10. Cher David Bellos,
    Should we infer from your rapid reply that you are a regular reader of Language Hat? I’ll keep a thought for the Godine edition.

  11. The text was copy-edited by a wonderfully pernickety American editor
    Ah, that’s good to hear! And of course I’m delighted to have you visit; if this is your first time at LH, I hope you’ll drop by again, and if I like the novel as much as I expect to, I’ll look out for that anniversary edition.

  12. Also, “creek” in BrE seems to mean primarily “arm of the sea” rather than “stream”.
    And even more so in India.

    That’s very interesting. Generally, NZE follows BrE, but “creek” definitely means “small stream” here. That’s also the way my Anglo-Indian father always uses it. That said, the word is not used very much at all in NZE, and I haven’t heard it often in the last 20 years or so.

  13. In BrE we often refer to ‘tidal creeks’ suggesting that there are non-tidal creeks although we never discuss them. (Given our tidal range perhaps we don’t have any non-tidal creeks to discuss. (but then why the adjective?)). I have only ever heard ‘creek’ on its own in American contexts.

  14. A.J.P. Crown says

    ‘Who exactly is using this anglicized pronunciation? ‘
    There may have been thousands of people in Africa talking in English about marigots (to rhyme with ‘haricot beans’, another English usage not used in the United States as far as I know) up until the early 1960s; so it’s hardly surprising the OED would have it.
    I noticed creek, too (noticed it before I read John Cowan’s comment, in other words) as a non-British word for stream. On the other hand ‘up the creek’ is common there, so I suppose it was imported from the USA ready-formed. Does anyone know whether there’s a difference between a babbling brook (Bach / bekk) and a stream?

  15. Tergal is the adjective for tergum, Which explains tergal shirts, skirts, and trousers. I admit it’s a bit pleonastic.
    Ah, Gretchen! Am Spinnrade again, are we? Make that neoplastic rather, in two ways. Tergal comes from TER(EPHTHALIC + GAL(LIC, as SOED explains.

  16. In Australia creek normally means a small stream, typically feeding into a river. But it may also be a tidal stream. The first divisions of the SOED entry cover it well enough:
    I 1 An inlet on a sea-coast or in the tidal estuary of a river. ME.
    2 A small port or harbour; an inlet within the limits of a haven or port. L15.
    3 A short arm of a river. L16.
    4 A tributary of a river; a stream, a brook. N. Amer., Austral., & NZ. E17.
    5 transf. A valley extending from a plain into a highland area. M17.II …
    And you’ll love this one (which I’ve never heard in Australia):
    6 A cleft in the face of a rock etc. Also, the cleft between the buttocks. ME–M17.
    We – some of us, that is – speak of being up Shit Creek in a barbed wire canoe. (My countrymen omit hyphens. It’s kind of a hobby, like cricket.)

  17. ToussianMuso says

    This post interested me because I live in a village in Burkina Faso with a marigot running through it, which I cross on my mobylette to get to my courtier.
    African French has all kinds of interesting features, although I am starting to forget a few of the distinctions between African and European usage. A colleague mentioned noticing the semantic drift of the words “interessant” and “normal”, and since then I have noticed them everywhere, most tellingly in their negative forms. “Pas interessant” refers to anything one finds unappealing, and “pas normal” means that something is not as it should be. (Mais moi, je ne le trouve pas tres interessant d’etre normal.)
    Trying to be a good descriptive linguist, I sometimes find it difficult not to feel like my French pronunciation (and, quel horreur, maybe even grammar) is degenerating a bit. I still can’t bring myself to pronounce the final consonant in words like “but” and “mais” (those are nouns, not conjunctions; I can’t make accents on my laptop), not to mention all those word-initial h’s (or should I call them aitches?): haine, honte, haut, haricot, etc. I know in principle that correct usage is defined by common usage, but I have always had inordinate attachments to the way I first learn things, and it’s especially hard to let go if the other way feels like an anglicism.
    Thank you for permitting me this digression.

  18. A.J.P. Crown says

    Noetica, up shit creek etc., is that an Australianism? I’ve heard it pretty much world wide, but it sounds like something from Australia.
    With Bach and Norwegian bekk I ought to have incliuded bec, as in Tooting Bec, in London. My first wife, an American, always thought it was terribly funny that on one side of London is Tooting, on the other is Barking and in the middle lies the Isle of Dogs. Not to mention ‘Epping’, whatever that is.

  19. Noetica, wouldn’t a marigot be a billabong in Australia?
    Marigot, a word with dangerous by-flavours at times.
    (J’espère que le billabong n’a pas trop bouilli près de chez toi.)

  20. I think I have heard Marigot, Dominica pronounced with a t. I tried to find YouTube verification, but everything seems to only have a steel drum instrumental track. I did manage to piece together a case from Google Books, though.

  21. A.J.P. Crown says

    According to the Wiki, billabong is ‘the name of an ice cream manufactured by the Fonterra Brands in Western Australia and by Nestlé PETERS in the rest of Australia’. In its other meaning, an oxbow lake, I’ve never once heard it (I’m half Australian) in Australia, except during the singing of Walzing Matilda (and Walzing Matilda is more rarely sung by Australians than you might imagine).

  22. I’m half Australian
    What else?

  23. A.J.P. Crown says

    I doubt that I’m the first person at LH to link to Walzing Matilda, but, anyway, here it is.

  24. A.J.P. Crown says

    Australian women are known as ‘billabongs’ in Mauritius? That’s odd. I’m half English, but I have American citizenship. In all, I’m about 200%, but that’s nothing compared to my daughter.

  25. Siganus Sutor says

    In its other meaning, an oxbow lake
    Funnily enough, “Oxbow” is also a trademark of sportswear. Shouldn’t somebody create a third brand, a brand of p… called Marigot? “Marigot, the famous Mylar underwear.”

  26. A.J.P. Crown says

    Marigot is an anagram of ‘I’m a trog’.

  27. A.J.P. Crown says

    I’m a trog
    And I’ve got mad sidies
    Lyrics to I Trog, by the English band Half Man, Half Biscuit. “Sidies” are sideburns, facial hair from the 1960s.

  28. “With Bach and Norwegian bekk I ought to have incliuded bec, as in Tooting Bec, in London. My first wife, an American, always thought it was terribly funny that on one side of London is Tooting, on the other is Barking and in the middle lies the Isle of Dogs. Not to mention ‘Epping’, whatever that is.”
    I think those places are/were the thorps named after whoever settled them. Poor guys, with names like “Toota” and “Eppa” and “Barca”. I guess Nigel and Reginald would have to count as an improvement. God, the English are cruel to their kids.

  29. Marigot sounds vaguely militaristic to me; I suppose I’m conflating it with maginot lines. That wiki picture of Marigot du Djoudj looks more like a lake than a creek though. The creek (pronounced “crick”) on our midwest ancestral farm was narrow enough to step across.

  30. Marigot is an anagram of ‘I’m a trog’.
    Who could forget the Troggs–“Wild thing” “I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes…”

  31. Thank you for permitting me this digression.
    In the first place, pretty much all digressions are welcome here (though we draw the line at insults), and in the second place, anyone who lives in a village in Burkina Faso with a marigot running through it has carte blanche as far as I’m concerned!
    There may have been thousands of people in Africa talking in English about marigots (to rhyme with ‘haricot beans’, another English usage not used in the United States as far as I know)
    I have seen it in the U.S., though not often, and as far as I know it is always pronounced HARE-i-coe (which is the only pronunciation given in Merriam-Webster). Do you pronounce the -t over there? And I assume there have been a fair number of people in Africa talking in English about marigots, but I also assumed that since they borrowed the word from French speakers they would pronounce it without the -t.

  32. A.J.P. Crown says

    No, no, they say HARE-i-coe, or actually HARRY-coe in England. I remember my grandmother talking about them a lot forty-odd years ago (she trilled her Rs), but they may be on their way out now.

  33. A.J.P. Crown says

    Toussain Muso,
    Do you know an Englishwoman called Blanche who lives in Burkina Faso? She recently moved there. I’ve known her since she was a baby.

  34. wouldn’t a marigot be a billabong in Australia?
    I’m not in Australia, but when I first read this post, I automatically parsed marigot as billabong. The context made it clear that it was some small body of water, and billabong just leapt unbeidden to mind. Perhaps because as 2-3 year old I used to call my younger sister billabong, apparently finding it easier to say than Philippa.
    AJP’s comment on the infrequency of Aussies singing Waltzing Matilda confirms that he’s not a big sports fan. It is difficult to remember any sports match of any type between Oz and Zild at which Matilda was not sung. At least in Trans-Tasman sporting fixtures, it has the status of de facto anthem.

  35. A.J.P. Crown says

    I’m half Australian and half biscuit.

  36. Haricot, marigot, apricot
    antelope, cantelope, Penelope.
    That’s the post-modern jump rope rhyme of the future. Be the first one on your block to use it.

  37. In standard usage billabong and creek are quite distinct. SOED has this for billabong: “A branch of a river, forming a blind channel, backwater, or stagnant pool.”
    Of course, a given portion of waterway might change from creek to billabong (or, less often it seems,vice versa). We see a lot of that in the current drought – or rather, the present drought in which currents are notably absent. The Australian National Dictionary (AND), a large and scholarly resource from Oxford that should be used more, has it this way:

    An arm of a river, made by water flowing from the main stream, usually only in time of flood, to form a backwater, blind creek, anabranch, or, when the water level falls, a pool or lagoon (often of considerable extent); the dry bed of such a formation. Also attrib.

    The etymology in OED:

    ad. Billibang, Aboriginal name of Bell River, f. billa water + bang of uncertain meaning.

    The etymology in AND:

    a. Wiradhuri [sic; spelling varies] bila river + -baŋ, signifying a watercourse that runs only after rain; originally as a place name, with reference to the Bell River in s.e. N.S.W.

    I am at present in south-east New South Wales (though “coast-centricity” might have this area labelled south-west), about 100 metres from “a watercourse that runs only after rain”, in Wiradjuri country. It is on the maps as a creek, and it would never be called a billabong; so the Wiradjuri meaning is either no longer respected or inaccurately reported.
    As for billy (OED: “A cylindrical container, usu. of tin or enamel ware, with a close-fitting lid and a wire handle, used for making tea and for cooking over fires in the open, and for carrying food or liquid”), AND does not mention it as sharing an etymon with billabong, but OED and SOED do:

    Origin uncertain: perh. f. Austral. Aboriginal billa river, water (cf. billabong).

    Compare AND:

    f. Scot. dial. billy-pot cooking utensil, cf. bally, bally-cog milk pail …

    Both words are firm fixtures in Australian lore, and both occur in Waltzing Matilda. The locals are strangely immune to any analysis of this august anthem that involves suicide as a means of evading responsibility, though this is the dominant theme. Such behaviour is for terrorists! Compare some British students of history, who used to consider that the Renaissance and all that happened on “the Continent”, and had nothing to do with them, by jingo. (Let’s hope we now know better on both fronts.)
    Sigismonde des Martiens, thank you for your concern. I was in the hills near Melbourne on Saturday when the bushfires hit. The nearest was very small, but only 3 km away. The temperature was the highest ever recorded in Melbourne: about 46.5 degrees Celsius. Other parts of Victoria reached 48 degrees. The state had just endured its worst sequence of high-temperature days on record, and conditions were ripe for disaster. The count of the dead is edging up towards 200, and we don’t know where it will stop. I drove from Melbourne to here on Monday – sometimes through a haze of smoke, flanked by scorched earth and blackened trees. Singed remains of kangaroos lay to the side of the road. Everything was still and eerie, and later a huge smoke-filtered full moon rose over the highway ahead.

  38. A.J.P. Crown says

    Incidentally, the final stage after a bend in the river has cut itself off to become an oxbow lake is that it dries up. It’s then called a mortlake — hence Mortlake, by the Thames in London.

  39. Thanks for reporting in, Noetica. We were a bit worried. And thanks for the etymologies as well!

  40. Siganus Sutor says

    Yes, Noetica, good to know that you didn’t lose anything (?), et que tu n’as pas le poil roussi. Reading what you wrote above, one could easily think it was a story told by Nevil Shute…
    For me a marigot could be what your definition describes as a billabong (“A branch of a river, forming a blind channel, backwater, or stagnant pool”), but it could also be a mere waterhole in the middle of nowhere.

  41. I always thought there was something a bit funny about the word marigot, though I didn’t immediately place it as a feature of W. African French. In the Sahelian countries in which I have lived it seems (judging by usage)to refer to seasonal bodies of water (wadis?) or somehow non-permanent flooded lowlands. On the other hand, apart from very large rivers, these are really the only types of “bodies of water” in the sahel anyways, so maybe that distinction is irrelevant. The english speakers with whom I discussed said marigots, all ommitted the ‘t’ sound, though otherwise anglicising it – in fact come to think of it, I think I debated in my mind for some time whether it should be spelled marigot or marigaud, because I had never seen it written. On the other hand when referring to a “bidon” in english, the final n was always pronounced, though it would merely be a nasalized ‘o’ in french. I actually didn’t even know what the english word for these was until one day I heard a friend referring to a ‘bidon’ in arabic as a ‘jrikan’ and I realized that ‘we’ call them ‘jerry cans’ in english. hilarious!

  42. The english speakers with whom I discussed said marigots, all ommitted the ‘t’ sound, though otherwise anglicising it
    Exactly as I predicted!
    *pats self on back*
    I too was contemplating “wadi” as a translation, except that it carries the wrong geographical connotations.

  43. Siganus Sutor says

    *pats self on back*
    Hat, I didn’t know you were that supple. Can you also scratch your ear with your toe when baffled by some obscure etymology?
    A wadi is un oued? That’s what Petit Robert suggests. However, I have never imagined that un oued could be the same thing as un marigot. The first is very short-lived, the second generally not. In the first water flows, in the second it’s still.

  44. A.J.P. Crown says

    An oxbow is un oeuf? No, an oxbow is un boeuf.

  45. A wadi is a dry stream, not a lake at all.
    Wadi Sacra in Amman, Jordan –Taken from eight floors up on Jebel al-Webdeh looking west towards Jebel Hussein. The wadi is the valley part where the cars are. During a sudden downpour it can become completely impassable with rushing water.

  46. Patting oneself on the back is not at all difficult for Americans. The really difficult maneuvers are wiggling your ears, turning your tongue upside down, patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, and walking and chewing gum. I can do the first two but not the second two.

  47. Haricot, marigot, bousingot,
    antelope, cantelope, Penelope.

  48. marie-lucie says

    I remember coming across the word marigot at least once, in a French work many years ago, I don’t remember where but it was definitely about a tropical country. I understood from the context that a marigot was some sort of body of water where animals such as giraffes and antilopes would come and drink.
    The initial part of the word is reminiscent of the words marais and marécage both meaning “swamp”, and also of mare meaning “farm pond”, and the image I had was of rather muddy water. The end of the word igot is reminiscent of the derogatory slang word Parigot which means “Parisian”. If the word does not have an African etymology, it could be a French creation describing a body of water of a type not found in France.

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