The Dawn’s Posterior.

Frequent commenter Paul sent me a French etymology so piquant I have to share it with all of you. There are two synonymous obsolete expressions (now used humorously), potron-jacquet and potron-minet, appearing only in the phrases à potron-minet/jacquet and dès (le) potron-minet/jacquet ‘at the crack of dawn.’ In today’s French dictionaries, minet means ‘pussycat,’ jacquet means ‘backgammon,’ and there is no word potron; what’s the story? The Trésor de la langue française informatisé has the answer:

Étymol. et Hist. 1835 (Ac.). Loc. issue par substitution de minet* «chat» à jacquet «écureuil» … de (dès le) poitron-jacquet «dès l’aube» (1640, OUDIN Curiositez); poitron (fin XIIe s., Audigier, éd. O. Jodogne, 23) représente le b. lat. posterio «cul». Cette loc. qui signifie proprement «dès que le derrière de l’écureuil se fait voir», s’explique par le fait que l’écureuil dresse souvent sa queue, faisant ainsi voir son derrière. Son remplacement par potron-minet est sans doute dû au fait que le chat passe pour être très matinal. Les expr. ont parfois été altérées en patron-jaquet (jacquette), patron-minet (minette), v. en partic. BALZAC, Père Goriot, 1835, p. 50 et HUGO, Misér., t. 1, 1862, p. 862.

In other words, this jacquet is an old word for ‘squirrel,’ poitron is from Low Latin posterio ‘rear end,’ and the expression originally meant ‘as soon as you can see a squirrel’s ass’ (which is explained par le fait que l’écureuil dresse souvent sa queue, faisant ainsi voir son derrière: by the fact that the squirrel often raises his tail, letting you see his derriere); the squirrel was replaced by the cat because the latter passe pour être très matinal, is thought to be a very early riser. (There is a word matou ‘male cat,’ but it is a variant of mitou and has, alas, nothing to do with le matin.)

Completely unrelated, but here‘s an Irish Examiner story with a brief clip of “a young Derry lad being interviewed by UTV Ireland about the walk to school in the snow.” It was posted to Reddit with the caption “Give up just 16 seconds of your day to hear potentially the greatest accent ever to grace the ears of mankind.” Thanks, Trevor!


  1. All very well, but poitron > potron, who ordered that? Is it a hybrid of poitron and patron?

  2. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    The cat’s posterior appears to be curiously prominent in French tradition. Here’s e.g. from one of the comptines (nursery songs that, especially older ones, do tend to be delightfully bawdy and/or gory, and nobody seems to mind much) I came across while raising my daughters in France:

    Un chat marchait le long de la gouttière.
    Le vent soufflait sa petite queue légère.
    J’ai vu, t’as vu
    J’ai vu, t’as vu
    Le p’tit trou d’son derrière
    J’ai vu, t’as vu
    J’ai vu, t’as vu
    Le p’tit trou de son …

    The word masked by the final ellipsis isn’t sung but no-one would doubt it’s cul.

  3. I know “at sparrow-fart” for “early in the morning”. It may be a nonce, said by a character in the novel Don’t Point That Thing At Me.

  4. @Stu Clayton: I’ve seen something like that before, although I don’t think it was exactly the same. I don’t remember the context, except that I didn’t understand it initially.

  5. Wiktionary. Do sparrows fart? A LH thread with discussion of the expression “sparrow fart” (starting here).

  6. The thing is, they don’t so much fart as fist!

  7. Trond Engen says

    It’s (oppe) før fuglene fiser lit. “(up) before the birds fart” in Norwegian. With that alliteration I’ve never imagined it to be anything but native.

  8. Native it is.

  9. That sparrow-fart thread is ten(10) years old. *sniff* They grow up so fast!

  10. Trond Engen says

    Native it is.

    I don’t know. I think the expressions are too close for coincidence. The Norwegian version has a vaguely military flavor to me, like something a drill sergeant might say to his recruits, so it’s not inconceivable that it’s an unusually inspired nativisation.

  11. Which expressions are too close for coincidence? The etymological equivalent in English (howzat for apt alliteration’s artful aid?) is ‘fore fowls fist, though fist (with long i) has been lost since the early 17C. We do have lots of Latin relatives like inspire and expire, though.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Oh, we’re talking past eachother! Sure, all parts are native, which is another reason I meant that the Norwegian expression looks like native alliterative phrasurgy, but it’s too close too ‘sparrow’s fart’ to have been formed independently in Norwegian, so rather a clever calque.

  13. Not formed in Norwegian, but perhaps in Proto-Germanic (as fowl has no PIE root) and so part of the common inheritance. You’ve kept it as-is, we’ve changed fowl to a different bird name and fist to fart. That seems to be more likely than a calque.

  14. Trond Engen says

    I didn’t think of that at all, and I’ve been trying to find out why. It just doesn’t sound old, that’s the first part, but why? One part of it may be the same reason that I find it vaguely military. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it from anyone old, but rather from those young, male, with some claim on authority, and urban-macho-type outdoorsy. That’s a pretty specific demographic! The other part is that I don’t think I’ve heard it with the strong present fis or preterite feis. These partial reasons reinforce eachother. Inherited idioms are if anything more likely to contain archaic and dialectal word forms, and the demographic I conjure would if anything be more likely to adopt broad and dialectal colloquialisms for effect. This may all be wrong, but it explains my narrow mind.

    Now I really want to know how old it is in Norwegian, and if it might be traced back. Is there a philologer in the audience?

  15. Trond Engen says

    Comparing Ghits, I’m inclined to think I was wrong. 7:1 for Bokmål “før fuglene fiser” versus Nynorsk “før fuglane fis” is really a pretty strong result for the latter.

  16. Up at crowpiss. Maritime Canada expression.

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