Two French Words.

1) These images of a snowy owl caught by a Montreal traffic camera have been making the rounds, and they’re spectacular, but what struck me in my Hattic capacity was the quote from the Quebec Transport Minister, Robert Poetin: “Magnifique harfang des neiges capté par les caméras de surveillance du réseau routier sur l’A-40 dans l’ouest de MTL.” I looked up the word harfang, which was unfamiliar to me, and it was defined in my trusty Collins dictionary as “snowy owl.” Then I decided to check my huge Larousse French-English English-French Dictionary: Unabridged Edition (over a thousant pages, weighs over seven pounds), and it wasn’t there! Oddly, if you look up “snowy owl” in the English-French section, it says “chouette blanche, harfang,” so its omission in the other half must be an error. Anyway, the Trésor de la langue française informatisé has it (“ORNITH. Grande chouette blanche des régions septentrionales, scientifiquement appelée nyctea“) and says it’s borrowed from Swedish harfång ; anybody know the etymology of that?

2) Thomas Meaney’s TLS review of Vanessa Ogle’s The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950 begins:

In the early 1960s, E. P. Thompson started scouring anthropological reports and ­journals for examples of peoples around the world with a less calculating sense of the passage of time. He was looking for temporal measures that were still deeply embedded in human action. In Madagascar, there was a word that designated “the time it takes to cook rice” and another for the moment it took to “roast a locust”. In Burma, there were monks who started the day “when there is light enough to see the veins in the hand”. In the English language, Thompson found linguistic markers closer to home: there were once such things as a “a pater noster wyle”, “a misère whyle”, and there had survived a rarefied measurement known as “a pissing while”.

Interesting stuff, but “a misère whyle” caught my eye: what could it possibly mean, and why would Early Modern Englishmen who wrote “whyle” have been putting an accent grave on “misère”? Then a horrid thought struck me: surely the companion phrase to “a pater noster wyle” should be “a miserere whyle” — the time it takes to say a Miserere. And sure enough, googling “miserere whyle” got me examples like “al the bellys schal be ronge ii peles be first iiii 2 miserere while be secounde on miserere whyle” and ” And after the space a3ene of another miserere whyle” (as well as a bunch of modern books repeating the same set of examples: “here are examples in old English usage: ‘pater noster whyle’ and ‘miserere whyle’ […] and ‘pissing whyle … a somewhat arbitrary measurement”). So somebody, via haplogy, left out one “re” to produce “misere,” and somebody else, with just enough learning to be dangerous, said “Aha, that French word is missing its accent!” and behold, “a misère whyle” was born.


  1. haarfaeng: hair-grabber

    Presumably a reference to them flying low. As CW Fields might say to a French lady taking her dachshunds for a morning walk “Madame, les chiens volent bas ce matin”.

  2. Jim Doyle says

    A common time expression in Chinese novels is the time it takes to eat a meal. I don’t recall ever hearing it said though.

  3. Trond Engen says

    SAOB (the Dictionary of the Swedish Academy) lists it under *hare “hare”, so “hare-catcher”.

  4. Ah, that makes sense.

  5. Trond Engen says

    (Corrected a typo and went into moderation.)

    [Rescued from moderation, with apologies for overzealous software — LH.]

  6. harfång is rather transparently “hare-catcher” in Swedish. Per academiam svecanam (which lists it under headword hare) it’s the Nyctea scandiaca. Hair-catcher would be hårfång and would probably not be applied to things that get caught in your hair, but rather to something like a thorny plant that will catch it.

  7. The time when you can (not) tell a white/red thread from a black one is important in both the Jewish calendar and the Muslim one, defining the beginning of the day and the beginning of the Ramadan fast, respectively. To be sure, this is kairos rather than chronos.

  8. And now I remembered the connection that escaped me before: In Danish, we say uglet hår for “tousled hair” and at have ugler i håret for the kind of tangles that hurts to brush out. So Gavin’s idea that owls will get caught in your hair is alive somewhere. (I don’t think this metaphor is current in Swedish or Norwegian, though).

    On the other hand, ugler i mosen = “owls in the bog” literally, “something dodgy” metaphorically turns out to be a dialectal reshaping of ulve i mosen = “wolves in the bog” = “hidden danger”.

  9. Trond Engen says

    Lars: ugler i håret […] (I don’t think this metaphor is current in Swedish or Norwegian, though)

    Never heard it. Nisseknuter “goblin knots” is what my mother called them when she combed my hair.

  10. Trond Engen says

    … but it struck me even before you mentioned ulve that this might be another folk etymology. Something with uld “wool”?

  11. In The Silver Chair, Harfang is the castle of the “civilized” (but still man-eating) giants. I had until now assumed this was supposed to indicate the adjectival French sense, meaning snowy, not having knowing that came from a Germanic name for the snowy owl. However, it is probably relevant that Lewis made the evil giants’ primary leisure activity hunting.

    I had never noticed before that harfang has such a transparent etymology. Of course, a big part of that is because the root fang in Modern English has had it’s meaning narrowed to just the dental sense, from the wider catch sense found in most (all?) other Germanic languages.

  12. A common Medieval abbreviation for -re- is a wavy line over the word which is to include it (see e.g. Cappelli, §3.4). Something that looks like misẽre might get transcribed as misère in standard printing. I blame a general unfamilarity with medieval manuscript abbreviations (which of course every child should be taught at their mother’s knee), and the lack of Unicode representation of same (which they’ve been working on since the Middle Ages or thereabouts).

  13. While that’s a theoretical possibility, I’ll bet cash money that Meaney got it either directly from Thompson or from one of the other scavengers who have cited the same phrases he did, and that the -re- deletion happened in the TLS offices.

  14. Yes it has to be hare-catcher. As an Englishman I was too careless of the difference between ‘aa’s and ‘a’s. Sorry to startle a hart from the thicket.

  15. My wife thinks that the phrase uglet haar came about because such hair resembles uglegylp (what owls vomit up, graphically illustrated if you google the word).

  16. The Middle English dictionary has “Al the bellys schal be ronge one Miserere whyle at leste, and than the chaptyr belle schal be ronge oo Pater noster while.” Their source is Aungier’s The history and antiquities of Syon monastery, the parish of Isleworth, and the chapelry of Hounslow of 1840, based on a variety of sources. There are several other miserere whyles in the book, none abbreviated (and also an ave whyle). The Goggle shows no other sources for the phrase, and the TLS article is the only source for “misere whyle”.

    Someone must have unconsciously Frenchified the Latin at the TLS, as you say.

  17. LH on the etymology of newfangled, with speculations on restoring the lost verb fang to contemporary English.

    To recap, I was all for the strong forms fang, fong, fongen, but I am willing to accept fang, fanged if that’s what it takes to get this fine Germanic verb back into circulation.

  18. Apropos and apropos, while looking up whyle, I found whelm.

  19. One of the automated reasoners for the Web Ontology Language (abbreviated OWL, with a nod to Winnie-the-Pooh) is called Pellet.

  20. ə de vivre says

    The harfang should be on the lookout for the Vogelfänger (or the fågelfängare, for that matter)

  21. Hmm, I have to retract the owl in hair etymology for uglet hår, it seems the metaphor is for the tousled appearance of (some) owls and the earlier sense is for disheveled appearance in general. And Trond might well be right about the wool, there is a pre-1950 sense of ugle for a dust bunny that might be an alteration of uld (cf. “slut’s wool”), that is not that far from the tangles in little girls’ hair.

  22. Trond Engen says

    ullen adj. “vague, blurry, foggy”.

  23. The Québec transport minister’s name is Robert Poëti, not Robert Poetin (The Independent made the mistake): I think the name is Italian in origin.

    And snowy owls are indeed spectacular creatures: calling them “hare catchers” is a rather Northern European way of seeing the animal world, though, as in French a LÉVRIER (literally a “hare-er”) is a sighthound, AKA gazehound.

    And in accordance with the word’s Germanic origin, its initial H is treated as an “h aspiré” in French, i.e. although it is silent, it prevents contraction or liaison: hence “le harfang, les harfangs” realized as /ləaʀfɑ̃/ and /leaʀfɑ̃/, respectively (In contrast to what is called a “h muet”, an etymological H which was never pronounced in the history of French and which thus means that the word is treated like any other word with an initial vowel, i.e. “l’homme, les hommes”, with contraction in the first instance and with the second realized as /lezɔm/).

  24. “a rather Northern European way of seeing the animal world”

    How, in it’s stead, would you rather we see the animal world?

  25. Jim Doyle says

    “as in French a LÉVRIER (literally a “hare-er”) is a sighthound, AKA gazehound.”

    Etienne, I had heard that as a translation of “greyhound” but does it apply to other sight hounds? is that what you’d call a Scottish deer hound for instance?

  26. Hozo: Oh, I don’t think there is any “right” way of looking at the animal world: it’s all a matter of the local ecology: In Northern Europe snowy owls are more of a danger (if you are a hare) than lean dogs, whereas further South lean dogs are the greater danger (well, that is how we humans see it). Hence the designation “Hare taker”/”Hare-er” to designate such different creatures.

    I have no doubt that, if humans ever colonize another world and introduce hares to that world, whatever creature within this new ecology which becomes the dominant predator from the vantage point of hares (or, more accurately, is perceived by humans to be the dominant hunter/killer of hares) will likewise be called (in whatever language(s) these human colonists speak) a “Hare catcher”, “Hare killer” or the like.

    Jim: Yes, I too thought “greyhound” was the proper translation of “lévrier”, but the bilingual dictionaries I consulted gave “sighthound” or “gazehound” as the equivalent: there may be nuances in meaning between the words in the two languages which an ordinary bilingual dictionary does not offer.

  27. Trond Engen says

    If a hare hound is a lévrier, then a deer hound is a cerfier, and a terrier is chasing earth itself.

    But seriously, is this a productive pattern? Would cerfier be understood as “deer hound”?

  28. Stu Clayton says

    The saucier is the saucy dog.of kitchen personnel.

  29. Trond: not only is the pattern not productive, but to French speakers today “lévrier” is a single morpheme: the connection with “lièvre” is purely historical (and thus, to answer your question, a word like “cerfier” would simply be incomprehensible…except, possibly, to a few historical linguists and assorted misfits).

    Thus, getting back to my example above, if French speakers had to coin a name for a new animal whose salient quality was its being a killer of hares, a V + N compound (attrape-lièvres, tue-lièvres or the like) is how native speakers of French today would likely coin such a word.

  30. Trond Engen says

    I don’t think you should read too much into the word harfång. It’s quite anomalous in form.

    Compound animal names with the main prey as specifier usually have the generic type name as head (literal translations): fiskeørn “fish eagle”, spurvehauk “sparrow hawk”, musvåk “mouse buzzard”, kattugle “cat owl”.

  31. The English word harecatcher appears to be a calque of Hasengeier, the name of an extinct, and possibly never extant, Old World vulture. It was only described once by Gesner in 1555 and named by him Vultur leporarius; Ray 1713 calls it V. cristatus, but both names are obsolete, since genus Vultur now refers to New World vultures only. It cannot be identified with any known European vulture.

  32. Jim Doyle says

    “If a hare hound is a lévrier, then a deer hound is a cerfier, and a terrier is chasing earth itself.
    But seriously, is this a productive pattern? Would cerfier be understood as “deer hound”?”

    The whole thing is puzzling because greyhounds were used to hunt (well, not actually hunt; you had peasants to do that) red deer (what we call elk) and other types of deer. They would be sent in to finish a cornered stag. This has effected their general demeanor. Singly they can be pretty skittish and diffident because a single hound going in on a stag is risking its life, while in groups they cane be quite confident. They are snobbish towards other dogs and don’t allow them into their groups.

    Chasing hares and rabbits was quite secondary, probably only for the dogs to have some fun on their own.

    But “gazehound’ fits all of these behaviors.

  33. marie-lucie says

    There is no such word as cerfier, but there is le loup-cervier, an older word for the ‘European lynx’ (says the TLFI). The word refers to the fact that the lynx hunts le cerf ‘deer”.

    Cerfier would not be a possible word given the age of cervier. Latin for ‘deer’ was ceruus, hence Late or Medieval Latin ceruarius, with original [w] which evolved into [v], which in turn became [f] after the loss of final -u- but not otherwise. (Another such instance is bref ‘short’, the feminine form of which is brève, both from Latin brevis).

    As for le lévrier (which I have always associated with le lièvre ‘hare’), I learned the English word greyhound, but have never even run into sighthound or gazehound until now.

  34. Jen in Edinburgh says

    For what it’s worth,évrier covers basically the same ground as – a collection of types, including greyhounds but also whippets, salukis and deerhounds.

  35. David Marjanović says

    genus Vultur now refers to New World vultures only

    There’s a story behind this. Linnaeus still called all vultures Vultur. When the concept of type species, on which a genus name is anchored, was introduced long after Linnaeus, some dolt fixed the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) as the type species of Vultur, evidently because Linnaeus happened to have listed it first. So when the genus was split, Vultur had to be restricted to the condors and their closest relatives.

  36. Good lord, that’s dumb.

  37. And to make matters worse, IIRC New World vultures are really a kind of stork. Convergent evolution and all that.

  38. If “harfang” means “snowy owl,” rather than just “owl,” why was it necessary to say “harfang des neiges”?

  39. Malm 1877 on bubo scandiaca:

    Harfång *).

    Synon.: Strix scandiaca L. Fn., s. 24, n:r 70. Strix nyctea L. Fn., s. 25, n:r 76. — — Nilss. Fn. 1, sid. 96.

    Harfång nedkommer till Bohuslän, åtminstone vissa år, ej så sällan, hvilket synes derutaf, att omkring 10 exemplar inkommit till Naturhistoriska Museum i Göteborg under de sista 27 åren, mellan medlet af Oktober och medlet af Mars. Utaf dessa anföras här följande lokal- och tidsuppgifter för denna fogels ertappande inom orten: Tanum, 24 November 1858, ♀; Inland, 13 Mars 1859, ♀; Göteborgstrakten, 18 Januari 1866, ♀; Kongsbacka & Valda, 22 Januari 1869; Mölndal, 20 Oktober 1869. Öfver det den 24 November 1858 vid Tanum fälda hon-exemplaret har jag antecknat följande: Iris citrongul.

    Ögonlock och näbb svarta. Fötterna perlhvita.

    *) Detta gamla, svenska namn, som är upptaget af Linné, måste vara tillagdt foglen derför, att de starkt fjädrade fötterna äro snarlika harens.

    So this ornithologist thought the harfång name alludes to hare-like feet. Sounds strange to me, but though I’m officially Swedish I’m not native enough to decide if he’s talking though his hat. The usual places for Swedish etymology are silent.

  40. David Marjanović says

    Good lord, that’s dumb.

    It’s a whole clusterfuck. 🙂 First, it’s really easy to accidentally fix the type species of a genus that doesn’t yet have one: simply claim it’s the type species in a work that counts as published. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to be aware of what you’re doing.* Thus, it’s possible that the fellow thought V. gryphus already was the type species, most likely because Linnaeus had listed it first. Urban legends about the Code are very widespread among taxonomists**, because the Code is so thoroughly badly written that, if you look something up, you’re 1) bound to overlook something pertinent to your situation and 2) likely to find yourself adrift in an Article that only addresses half of your situation and doesn’t make clear if it also applies to the other half. Finally, nobody knows why Linnaeus listed anything first. There’s a lot he never explained. He believed everything was just plain obvious, so we’re still suffering some of the consequences.***

    * Indeed it happened twice with Homo sapiens, first (and therefore validly) in “1959, when Professor William Stearn, in a passing remark in a paper on Linnaeus’ contributions to nomenclature and systematics wrote that ‘Linnaeus himself, must stand as the type of his Homo sapiens‘. This was enough to designate Linnaeus as a lectotype (Article 74.5), the single name[-]bearing type specimen for the species Homo sapiens and its subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens“, then again (invalidly) in someone’s report on someone else’s intent to designate the skull of E. D. Cope the type specimen. “The proposal was never actually published by Bakker, but was reported by Psihoyos in sufficient detail to serve as a designation in its own right.” This pretty much has to be true because it’s in the official FAQ on the official website of the Commission.
    ** There are still people who believe in page and line priority!
    ** Some, to be sure, have been remedied. For example, Linnaeus stuffed all monkeys & apes (except maybe Homo troglodytes who was probably not meant to be a chimpanzee after all) into a genus Simia, which had grown into such confusion by 1929 that the Commission took off and nuked it from orbit by means of Opinion 114.

    IIRC New World vultures are really a kind of stork

    For half a century that was going to be the next breakthrough in bird phylogeny. Then people started doing molecular phylogeny and found the New World vultures in a much more boring position – as the sister-group of the kites + buzzards* + hawks + eagles + Old World vultures. The support for grouping them with the storks had only ever amounted to one or two characters.

    It’s the falcons (incl. caracaras) that don’t belong there! They are much more closely related to the seriemas, parrots and songbirds. And nobody had seen that coming.

    * Not of course the New World vultures that are called “buzzards” in the US.

  41. January First-of-May says

    It is said that the name Tyrannosaurus rex achieved priority over another name for the same species by being published a page earlier than the other one. Apparently this is not the case.

    What is true is that an earlier-published name was eventually (in 2000) discovered to belong to the same species; it would normally have been declared to have priority, but a special subclause adopted several months earlier allowed priority to the newer but much more popular name (in this case as well as several other similar ones).

  42. David Marjanović says

    Yep. Tyrannosaurus rex is in all probability a junior synonym of Manospondylus gigas (named for half a vertebra or something), but because the latter is a nomen oblitum, that doesn’t matter.

  43. Rodger C: Convergent evolution (with old-world vultures) yes, storks no. The bird families have been rearranged a lot in this century.

  44. Albatrosses are not closely related to gulls, swifts and swallows are even farther apart, and ostriches and rails even more so.

  45. I’m surprised no one’s brought up “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail” as a measurement of time yet; am I the only one to have heard this jocular British expression?

  46. David Marjanović says

    That’s not a measurement, it means “too fast to be measured”, right? In German I’ve read hastdunichtgesehen “youhaventseen” = “before you can look” in this function.

  47. Stu Clayton says

    Huh, I don’t think I’ve encountered that lamb’s-tail meaning, but it seems to be out there:

  48. @Lameen: It was notably used by Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction.

  49. Stu Clayton says

    Pulp Fiction seems an exotic source for an expression I know from my 90-year-old mother. But I suppose films, like books and reminiscent old farts, are just devices by which the past is jump-started into the present.

  50. Yeah, I think I heard it from my mother (b. 1915, Iowa) as well. It’s definitely an expression, but pretty much moribund for decades (at least until Pulp Fiction did its bit for revival).

  51. I grew up thinking “two shakes” on its own was uncommon but unremarkable; I probably knew somebody who said it. When Uma Thurman used the full expression in Pulp Fiction, it was weird, because I couldn’t remember ever having heard it that way before; but I must have, since I recognized that that was indeed the version, even if it sounded quite strange.

  52. marie-lucie says

    In French there is a homespun phrase for the same meaning: en deux coups de cuillère à pot ‘in two swipes of a stirring spoon’. (The de here is pronounced just d as the e does not need to be sounded). There may be others, but this one comes to mind.

  53. marie-lucie says

    In French there is a homespun phrase for the same meaning: en deux coups de cuillère à pot ‘in two swipes of a stirring spoon’. (The de here is pronounced just d as the e does not need to be sounded). There may be others, but this one comes to mind.

    I won’t guarantee that this phrase is still in use, but my mother used it quite often.

  54. There’s a long conversation going on in the letters page of New Scientist right now about folk measures of time and distance; for example “puro” (lit. “cigar”) is a Chilean (I think) phrase meaning “as far as you can ride in the time taken to smoke a cigar” . There are similar measures related to cigarettes, animals needing to urinate etc.

    And a “shake” is a unit of time in nuclear physics equal to ten nanoseconds:

  55. Speaking of nuclear weapons, the Trinity test took place in the Jornada del Muerto (“Days’ Journey of the Dead Man”) desert, although that is not actually an accurate measure of the desert’s size. (It takes several days to cross on foot.)

  56. It takes several days to cross on foot.

    When you’re dead, it takes less time.

  57. David Marjanović says

    Reportedly, there are geo- and paleontologists who measure time spent at a dig in crates of beer.

  58. This phenomenon can go the other way too. For example, words for day came to be terms of legislatures (“diet,” “tag,” etc.), through the intermediate meaning of days’ work.

    I just heard another odd unit while listening to this song: “hundred-barrel whale.” The meaning is obvious, although I still find it rather creepy to measure cetaceans in such units. Until I saw the John Huston-Gregory Peck-Richard Basehart film version of Moby-Dick, it had never occurred to me that the whaling ship crews had to render the blubber at sea. At Mystic Seaport, they show an actual movie of a whale being hided; it’s horrifying. (Like Escape from Sobibor, it’s one of those films that I am glad I saw once, but I don’t think that I could watch again.)

  59. Grave of the Fireflies is that film for me.

  60. A jornada is a stretch of road between two stopping-for-the-night places.

  61. marie-lucie says

    In French, une journée is a day’s worth (of work/trip/any activity). If you are paid by the day, you are payé à la journée. English journey was originally a day-long trip or portion of a trip.

  62. I am reminded of Sherlock Holmes, who once spoke of an especially interesting mystery as “a three pipe problem” (The red-headed league).

  63. marie-lucie says

    There is also the alleged Eskimo (Inuit) phrase “a three dog night” (during which you need 3 dogs to keep you warm).

  64. @marie-lucie: I think (and the Wikipedia article about the rock band of that name agrees) that term was supposed to be taken from Australian Aborigines, who were famed for their closeness to their dingos.

    I actually think Three Pipe Problem would be a better band name, but maybe not for a hard rock band.

  65. I actually think Three Pipe Problem would be a better band name, but maybe not for a hard rock band.
    These guys could have used that name..

  66. Heh.

  67. that term was supposed to be taken from Australian Aborigines

    It appeared in a Look magazine article on Australia, from which I learned it, not too long before the foundation of the band.

  68. @Roger C: That’s probably the same magazine article that the band’s name came from. The Los Angeles Times obituary for June Fairchild states:

    For several years, she lived with boyfriend Danny Hutton, a lead singer for the rock group Three Dog Night. She is said to have suggested the group’s name after reading that Australian aborigines gauged the coldness of a night by the number of dogs they had to curl up with to stay warm.

    Wikipedia says that she read the term in a magazine article specifically.

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