Daily Archives: August 3, 2010


I’m reading Nancy Huston’s Dolce agonia right now. It’s a book by an Albertan author, about Americans living in the Boston area, written in French, with an Italian title. Yes, it’s written in French; Nancy Huston lives in Paris and is a very popular French author, her English name and Albertan background notwithstanding. It’s set at that quintessentially American event,* the Thanksgiving dinner with an assemblage of various persons. And everyone is speaking idiomatic American English, as translated to French (or, really, written originally in French by a native Anglophone). It’s a bit disorienting, a bit giddying, a bit like being drunk. Which, given the alcoholic consumption at this particular party (especially of the host), seems suitable.

And on page 195, the first page of chapitre X, I read today a most apposite word: ébréité.

Now, that’s a French word, and I’ll get to the English in a moment, but look at it! You see é é é – three sheets in the wind! (And, ironically, take those out and you are left with brit – one is tempted to take this as a French slur on British consumption, but actually the word comes from Latin ebrius, “drunk”.)

So if you were to translate it into English – the context is Sean est fier de son degré d’ébréité – what word would you use? Well, probably drunkenness. Now, that’s a good old English word, with its clunky and woozy sound and its three n‘s like inverted cups and its two s‘s like the result of excessive consumption. Not in the least elevated. Alternatively, if you wanted to be highfalutin, you could say inebriation.

And now here’s the trick: if inebriation means “drunkenness”, does that mean ebriation – or, as happens to be the word – ebriety is a synonym for sobriety? Nope, wrong in: this is the in that leads in, that intensifies; it’s the in of inflame. We already know what the Latin root is, and what the French is. Now you know another word for being sloshed, hammered, pisstanked, wasted, bombed, blitzed…

Of course, ebriety is a more expensive word, so one may wonder if one should reserve it for a celebrity who has had too many cl‘s.** But it’s really good for raising the tone whenever one has raised the cup. For when a fellow drinks excessively, he goes from sobriety to ebriety – so he goes from so to e, and it’s so easy! Ere long his lids are heavy e e, and he’s going from upright b to still holding his head up i to resting on his arms t to collapsed in the chair y. And then he may decide to change his beverage and call to his friend: “Ee! Bri! A tea!”

*American Thanksgiving is not like Canadian Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving is another holiday Monday, one you probably get together with family for. American Thanksgiving is on a Thursday and is a sort of national psychosis: they all have to travel somewhere the day before, and the sidewalks are rolled up on the day of, and they take the day off and probably go shopping the day after, and they all call it Turkey Day. And massive feasts are expected, and if you don’t have family readily available you probably end up with a whole bunch of other people with whom you have just that one thing in common.

**In many parts of the world beverages are sold in bottles marked in centilitres, cl.


I remember, back when I was young enough to be captivated by first reading of a Richard Scarry book, visiting some family friends who had a place somewhere rural. The house was new, and in front of the steps had been lain down a board on the grass for people to walk across. The board had slipped a bit and I could see revealed a tidy triangle of very pale grass, in stark contrast with the neighbouring blades.

Now, what could be the etiology of that? Ah, even at that age I could infer readily enough that it was lack of sun. But what I did not know then – did not learn until reading some French philosophy in graduate school – was the word one could use to describe that grass: etiolated.

Now, one needs to look at this word carefully. Although it has to do with lack of sun, is has nothing to do with presence of a star (French étoile), and although the colour may be flushed, there is no toilet in it.

Moreover, though the plant may seem violated, it would be a violation to pronounce this word to rhyme with violated. Rather, it is a dactyl and a trochee, the first three syllables said like “E-T-O” and the remainder like the latter part of related. In the ensemble, it has a slight echo of eat your lettuce, which, however, you probably don’t want to do if the lettuce is etiolated. You may also notice that all the consonants are on the tip of the tongue – none hiding back where the sun doesn’t shine, but also none blossoming on the lips.

Etiolated is not related to etiology, which is more originally ætiology. Rather, it comes – by way of various French phonological transformations – from Latin stipula, “straw”, and is related to stubble – and, yes, I should stipulate, to stipulate. And for those who are sad to see such a pretty word bleached by lack of use, you may be elated by this detail: it is often used (as I have adumbrated) figuratively, particularly of concepts and abstract qualities – such things as may be read of in library books, buried somewhere in chthonic bibliotechnic depths, far from the sun, printed on white sheets of processed plant matter…