Napoleon’s defeats

we all possess Napoleon’s features …

This year, I reread Leo Tolstoy War and Peace, for the fifth time. War and Peace is one of my favourite books, and since I first read it at high school, I reread it regularly. This time, I reread it so quickly, I was so absorbed in the narrative, that I turned the last page regretting that there were four volumes only. I would have enjoyed reading twenty of them!

While I was regretting War and Peace was so short, my inner linguist started wondering about expressions related to Napoleon, in any language that springs to mind.

Any language in this case meant English and French, and the two expressions refer to Napoleon’s defeats.

In English, you can meet or face your Waterloo, the expression popularised not so much by the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon indeed did surrender, but by the song Waterloo by Abba, which won the Eurovision song contest in 1974.

Just as I was humming Oh, oh, oh, oh, Waterloo / Finally facing my Waterloo, a French colleague commented on a committee she participated in, with the words c’est la Bérézina. The expression means disastrous and disorganised matter, and refers to another Napoleon’s defeat, this time by the river Berezina, at the hands of Russian army.

Strangely, nothing in Russian came to my mind. There are obviously quotes: Napoleon was a popular figure in the 19th century Russia, which is reflected by ambivalent feelings of the War and Peace male protagonists towards him.

Alexander Pushkin mentions Napoleon in his Eugene Onegin: мы все глядим в Наполеоны (we all aspire to be Napoleons).

We all possess Napoleon’s features;

The millions of two-legged creatures

Are only instruments and tools;

But today, the most famous Napoleon in Russian is a mille-feuille pastry that is called наполеон, although the etymology is unclear, perhaps it is a corruption from Neapolitan, Naples being famous for its pastry.

Winter words

the snow of yesteryear

This winter, we had beautiful snow in the Baltics, and I took up cross-country skiing again, which used to be my favourite sport at school. Now, a thought has crossed my mind that in alternative reality, I would have enjoyed being a professional cross-country skier. Snow, cold, movement, solitude, pure bliss.

While I was daydreaming about skiing championships, my inner linguist was wide awake and was wondering about expressions related to ski, in any language.

I could recall only one, in Russian: навострить лыжи (to sharpen ones’ ski), meaning to try to leave surreptitiously.

Another Russian expression is about sledges: любишь кататься, люби и саночки возить (if you like sledging, you should like to carry the sledge). The closest English equivalents are ‘if you want to dance, you have to pay the piper’, or simply, ‘there is no such things as free lunch’.

What about other winter delights, such as snow, frost, and cold?

In English, many useful expressions relate to the word cold. To come in from the cold, to be left out in the cold, to get cold feet, to get (and to give) the cold shoulder, cold comfort.

Surprisingly, French is quite rich in wintry expressions: ne pas avoir froid aux yeux is the equivalent of ‘not be faint-hearted’ , battre froid à qqn means ‘to give somebody the cold shoulder’, faire boule de neige is ‘to snowball’, and fondre comme neige au soleil is ‘to melt away’, ‘to disappear into thin air’.

My favourite expression is mais où sont les neiges d’antan (where is the snow of yesteryear?), which comes from a poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By) by a 15th century French poet François Villon. In the 20th century, it was made into a song by Georges Brassens.

Abat-jour

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che diffondi la luce blu

To protect against infection, washing hands is a critical gesture, and to do so properly, the washing should take as long as singing Happy Birthday twice.

I don’t like the Happy Birthday song at all.

That’s why I decided that every week I would choose one song among those I do like but have never looked up the lyrics, and would learn them by heart, to accompany my hand washing routine.

The first song is in Italian, chosen in honour of our Italian friends, although its name is French, abat-jour, from abbattre (to through down) and jour (daylight).

It is a song from the 1960s. In a film Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), it accompanies the famous sensual scene with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. 

Abat-jour che soffondi la luce blu
di lassù tu sospiri chissà perchè
Abat-jour mentre spandi la luce blu
anche tu cerchi forse chi non c’è più

In some versions of the song, the verb soffondi (you suffuse) is replaced by diffondi (you diffuse). The two verbs are related, but different: soffondere means to suffuse, to spread in a manner of light or fluid, and derives from Latin suffundere, with the etymology of spreading upon (‘sub’ ). A more common diffondere, from diffundere, means to diffuse, to spread around, away (‘dis’).

You can watch the famous spogliarello scene here.

Blue prince

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blue princes

Twenty years ago, my first Spanish teacher, to teach us the subjunctive, used to play this silly song:

Si una lámpara mágica tuviera  / y me diera un príncipe azul
no podría desear jamás / a un hombre mejor que tú.”

(If I had a magic lamp / and it would give me the prince charming
I would never want / a better man than you.)

The method worked. I still remember the lines and know the words for  ‘magic lamp’ and ‘prince charming’, although these are not the words I use daily!

The ideal man, whether you mean it seriously or ironically, is called in English ‘prince charming’;

in French prince charmant

in German Traumprinz (‘dream prince’) and Märchenprinz (‘fairytale prince’)

in Latvian sapņu princis (‘dream prince’)

in Modern Greek πρίγκιπας του παραμυθιού (‘fairytale prince’)

in Czech pohádkový princ (‘fairytale prince’) and princ na bílém koni (‘prince on a white horse’)

in Russian прекрасный принц (‘beautiful prince’) and also принц на белом коне (‘prince on a white horse’). (The appearance of a white horse in two Slavic languages needs to be investigated further.)

A popular Russian songs goes:

Так чего же ты ждёшь? Ты ждёшь чтоб я извинился.
Прямо здесь чтобы я, чтобы я вдруг стал прекрасным принцем.

(So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for me to change?
For me to become a prince charming right here right now.)

But in Spanish the ideal man is  príncipe azul, that is, ‘blue prince’ (as in the song I remember from 20 years ago), and also in Italian, principe azzurro.

Although the colour blue is associated with aristocratic origin, as the expression ‘blue blood’, which exists in many languages, attests, today only in Italian and Spanish (of the languages I know), the prince is blue. Where does this expression come from?

I have searched various sources, but did not find a clearcut answer.

The most comprehensive explanation comes from the Accademia della Crusca, the research academy for Italian language.  An article entitled Da dove arriva il Principe Azzurro? (‘Where does the Blue Prince come from?’) traces the first appearance of the expression, in both Italian and Spanish, to the late 19th – early 20th century, and the existence of an equivalent French expression, prince azure or prince bleu (which is not used today) even earlier, to the mid 19th century.

There is also a German tale, Himmelblau und Lupine (‘Prince Skyblue and Fairy Lupine’), by  Christoph Martin Wieland, a German man of letters of the 18th century, published in his collection Dschinnistan (1786 – 1789).  Can it be that this Prinz Himmelblau, portrayed as the ideal man, is the ancestor of our Spanish and Italian blue princes?

Don’t slam the door

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puerta cerrada

I was reading in Spanish novel where a protagonist left con un portazo, ‘slamming the door’. I was left wondering how do you slam the door in different languages.

In English, we close the door. We can also shut the doorbang the door, and slam the door. We can even slam the door in somebody’s face, although this is not recommended.

In French, on ferme la porte. If one wants to slam it, on claque la porte, and if one is annoyed, bothered, or impolite, on claque la porte au nez.  In his Chanson pour l’Auvergnat, Georges Brassens sings:

Tous les gens bien intentionnés
M’avaient fermé la porte au nez

In Spanish, to close the door is cerrar la puerta, but to slam it is dar un portazo. One can irse / marcharse con un portazo and one can also cerrar la puerta en la cara. A good rule of thumb was mentioned in a dictionary as an example: siempre es mejor irse cerrando puertas que dando portazos.

In Italian, you would normally chiudere la porta (close it), sometimes sbattere la porta (slam it), and rarely sbattere la porta in faccia. If you are really upset and it’s too much, you would sbattere la porta e dire: “Basta”, literally or figuratively.

In Russian, you can хлопнуть дверью or уйти, хлопнув дверью; on the other hand, they can закрыть дверь перед  носом. A popular song goes:

Уходя – уходи! Если кто-то тебе не поверит.
Уходя – уходи! Затвори за собой плотно двери.

In German, there is plenty of options: die Tür schließen, die Tür zuschlagen, die Türe vor der Nase zuschlagen / jemandem die Tür vor der Nase zuschlagen; jemandem die Tür ins Gesicht schlagen / werfen. Note that if the English, Italian, and Spanish slam the door in somebody’s face, whereas the French and Russian focus on the nose, the Germans can do both, face and nose.

In Latvian, one says aizcirst durvis, aizcērt kādam durvis, aizcirst kādam durvis deguna priekšā, aizvērt durvis kāda deguna priekšā. (Nose again.)

In Czech, one can mlátit, prásknout, bouchnout dveřmi . One can simply zavřít dveře (shut the door) or emphatically zavřít dveře před nosem. (Also nose.)

In Modern Greek, one says κλείνω την πόρτα, and κλείνω την πόρτα κατάμουτρα. The word κατάμουτρα is curious: κατα is a preposition with many meanings, including ‘down’ and ‘upon’, whereas μουτρα is slang for face. My Modern Greek is not yet sufficiently good, and I could not find any equivalents of slamming, but the Greeks surely are able to do it?

 

 

 

Don Quijote on a bus

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se vuelve a ver la figura de Don Quijote pasar

On a bus in Madrid, this poster caught my eye. It contained a poem about Don Quijote by an author unknown to me.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar.

Y ahora ociosa y abollada va en el rucio la armadura,
y va ocioso el caballero, sin peto y sin espaldar,
va cargado de amargura,
que allá encontró sepultura
su amoroso batallar.
Va cargado de amargura,
que allá «quedó su ventura»
en la playa de Barcino, frente al mar.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar.
Va cargado de amargura,
va, vencido, el caballero de retorno a su lugar.

¡Cuántas veces, Don Quijote, por esa misma llanura,
en horas de desaliento así te miro pasar!
¡Y cuántas veces te grito: Hazme un sitio en tu montura
y llévame a tu lugar;
hazme un sitio en tu montura,
caballero derrotado, hazme un sitio en tu montura
que yo también voy cargado
de amargura
y no puedo batallar!

Ponme a la grupa contigo,
caballero del honor,
ponme a la grupa contigo,
y llévame a ser contigo
pastor.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar…

Vencidos (“Defeated”) was written by León Felipe (1884-1968) whom Encyclopedia Britannica describes as a poet of the Spanish Civil War. This poem, however, appeared in his first book, well before the war. You can read an interpretation of the poem, in Spanish here.

The vocabulary is pretty straightforward. Barcino refers to Barcelona, to its name  in the Roman period. Abollado means ‘dented’, armadura, peto y espaldar are ‘armor’ and its  parts, but you do not need to know the meaning of these words to enjoy the poem. Grupa (f) is ‘rump’ or ‘croup’ of an animal, such as horse (whereas grupo (m) is ‘group’).

The only curious and obscure word is rucio:

Va en el rucio la armadura

Rucio literally means ‘pale grey’, and that is how Sancho Panza affectionately calls his donkey, a sort of ‘my grey buddy’.

If you are into memorisation, this poem, with all its rhythm, rimes, and repetitions, is an excellent choice.

You can listen to a wonderful recording by the poet himself in this blog post. If you are into songs, listen to this version or this one by Joan Manuel Serrat. An extra benefit: you will remember the imperatives singular haz, pon, and also llévame forever.