the best of words, the worst of words: beauté and fourchette

the best word: beauteFollowing hot on the heels of Tuesday’s best and worst words, chosen for their signification, here are a best word and worst word chosen solely for their sounds.

Clovis is an artist with a studio in Bushwick who paints monochromatic extreme close ups of people’s faces. I wish I had one to post here but alas it didn’t occur to me to ask. Take my word for it, though, they are really wonderful.

His favorite word, beauté (beauty), seemed a bit of an obvious choice until he explained why. It’s not the meaning of the word that he likes but the sound. “Parce que le mot est rond.” (“Because the word is round.”) Which is to say, he loves the word beauté for the word’s beauty. Clovis insisted that even if beauté actually meant something terrible like decrepitude or diarrhea (my examples, not his), he’d still love it.

Clovis’ least favorite word seems hilariously random to me, especially when paired with beauté. But Clovis just does not like the sound of fourchette (fork). He said in French, “It’s not the meaning at all. A fork is very useful, but the word is like whiplash (un coup de fouet).”

I see what he means – the four takes its time rolling off the tongue and then the ette erupts out at the end. It’s jarring. the worst word: fourchetteBut I have to admit I like it – along with assiette (plate) and serviette (napkin). Why all the dinnerwear ending with ette?

In any case… Clovis – whose work is all about color – told me that he thinks of words in terms of color as well. Synesthesia, I love it! “Some are hot colors and some are cold colors, and some I prefer more than others.” Since Clovis said beauté was hot and fourchette was cold, I guess he likes a warm palette (another ette word I love).

Informal poll: fourchette, love it or hate it?

the best of words, the worst of words: lumière and obscurité

Thomas' favorite word: lumiere

This past weekend I had the pleasure of going to my former downstairs neighbor’s cocktail party in my old building, three blocks away from my new one. In addition to being fascinating and fabulous herself, Francesca has a set of fascinating and fabulous friends, two of whom are French. And thus, another edition of “best words, worst words” comes your way…

Thomas is a novelist whose work I am excited to dive into. He assured me that I would be able to read it in the original French. He is also about to shoot a documentary about Bushwick artists, including Clovis, who will be featured in the next installment of best words, worst words.

I was surprised at the ease with which Thomas chose his superlative words. No deliberation at all; they came right to him.

His favorite: lumière (light). Why? Because light signifies “knowledge, God, beauty. It’s the opposite of obscurity.”

And his least favorite?Thomas' least favorite word: obscurite

Logically, obscurité (darkness, obscurity). Thomas believes that people cannot stand to live in obscurity – that they crave to be in the light, to be seen and known. Yet he also believes that people can’t live entirely in the light – that they need a small amount of obscurity to exist.

I don’t usually think of light and darkness as aspects of the human condition, but leave it to a writer to bring the poetry. Or leave it to the French language, I suppose. Until I noticed that obscurité translates to both darkness and obscurity, I hadn’t really linked the two. Darkness had always seemed physical and obscurity existential, but I suppose there is a lot of crossover – darkness can be existential and obscurity can be physical. I love these moments of lexical epiphany!

happy weekend

Agnes Obel Aventine

Last night I went to see Agnes Obel play Bowery Ballroom. She’s a Danish singer-songwriter whose lyrics are in English but to whom I was introduced by Philippe, my parler pal de Paris. So she feels appropriate to talk about on this blog even though technically she is irrelevant.

Anyway… It’s almost the weekend! And I need it, because two weekends ago was taken up entirely by moving and attending an editing workshop, and last weekend I spent one day in Vermont – and two days traveling to and from Vermont. Now I really want to just sit around doing nothing all day. And maybe catch up on anki and duolingo, which can feel nicely meditative and almost like doing nothing.

But – my plans to be lazy were foiled by my 2 1/2 year old niece in New Jersey, who wouldn’t give up the phone to my brother until he said he wanted to talk to me about when I was going to visit. That prompted her to ask me in her squeaky little voice, “Can you come visit me?” Which melted my heart and all my resolve to sit on my butt for two days in a row. I practically promised to come live with her if she would have me.

So, here’s to not being lazy after all, in the name of adorableness and adoration.

And here’s some Agnes Obel to start your weekend:

(Photo: Agnes Obel)

fascinating mapinating

Slate's language map of the United States

There are only seven states whose most common language other than English is not Spanish. But when you take español out of the mix, things get a lot more interesting. And surprising, at least for me – I would have thought Chinese would show up more often, and German and French less.

See the Slate article this map comes from for more maps, of the most commonly spoken Native American, Scandinavian, Indo-Aryan and African languages state by state. America is truly a polyglot paradise, so much richer for all the languages we speak. (And by ‘we’ I refer to us collectively, since we all know that I’m the sad sack who only really speaks English.)

oh, duolingo

duolingo reminders

I was in Vermont for a wedding this weekend and on the train trip back to New York I opened Duolingo for the first time since completing the Spanish and then the French lessons a couple of months ago. One of the app’s neat features is its built-in review component that allows you to do a quick and dirty refresh of the sections you’ve already passed. So I did a little bit of Spanish and a little bit of French.

I was reminded why I love Duolingo so dearly when I was served up this gem for translation into English:

Soy un pingüino.

Sure, why not?

The next day I got two emails in a row from Duolingo, one a reminder to keep up my Spanish studying and another a reminder to keep up my French. Apparently in the Duolingo food chain, it’s a penguin’s job to keep the owls happy. (I’m not doing such a great job these days.)

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playing hooky

The Hundred-Foot Journey

Last night instead of going to my weekly French Meetup, I wore the dress I had bought while putting off last week’s session, and I attended the premiere of a Hollywood movie featuring a perfectly Hollywood version of France.

There were more clichés in “The Hundred-Foot Journey” then you could shake a stick at. Three of the most egregious: the quaint village untouched by modernity (not one cell phone or computer in sight, but plenty of vintage books and bicycles); the cozy whitewashed apartment illuminated only by candlelight; and the shy ingénue with saucer-like eyes and magnetic charm – a French twist on the manic pixie dream girl.

But who cares. We dressed up, we walked (by) the red carpet, we spotted Oprah and Helen Mirren, and we were mildly entertained for two hours. And I heard about six lines of French over the course of the movie – so I’m counting that as a de facto Meetup.

Photo: Mysterious/badly lit selfie of my friend Jenny and me in row F. I really need to do better with these pictures…