Hugh Schofield considers postilion

[00:00:00.180] – Caroline Wyatt
It not only helps our correspondents to have a grasp of the language where they’re working; much is revealed in the use of language and its nuances. A working recognition of Serbo-Croat swear words during the Balkans war was useful, when you met very angry people, you could sense when you really ought to make your excuses and leave quickly for your own safety.

[00:00:23.520] – Caroline Wyatt
Hugh Schofield in Paris believes that speaking something other than your mother tongue can be very enlightening.

[00:00:30.580] – Hugh Schofield
The covid crisis has provided a happy opportunity to enrich my French. I never knew it, but the word you use for that little fleck of spit so dangerous to those around you because of its potential for propagation of the virus is a postillon, English – fleck of spit, French – postillon . Now, this is fascinating because postillon normally, and this I did know, is the same as our English word postilion, which denotes a man who helps to direct a team of horses.

[00:01:00.340] – Hugh Schofield
Postilions are rare on the ground nowadays, but the word is remembered in the ludicrous sentence – “my postilion has been struck by lightning”, which supposedly was once to be found in foreign language phrase books unlikely ever to be used, but somehow useful in providing an example of a basic grammatical construct. A bit like “la plume de ma tante”, “my aunt’s pen”. Did anyone ever actually utter those words. Anyway, and here’s what got me thinking. What on earth is the etymological connection between a teamster on an early Victorian coach and horses and a gobbet of infectious sputum?

[00:01:37.930] – Hugh Schofield
How can one and the same French word postillon signify both? The answer, as I learned from my beloved historical dictionary of the French language, is probably by analogy. The original postillon rode at the front of the line of horses attached to a carriage: he preceded.

[00:01:58.000] – Hugh Schofield
And so the word came to be applied to other things that precede or move ahead of an object like on a kite. The piece of card, that’s your end of the string. Sometime in the mid 19th century, somebody presumably in jocular mood, described the bit of spit which he just received in the face from his hyper salivating interlocutor as a postillon or a kind of outrider from the mouth and the expression stuck right down to covid. A completely useless piece of information, you may argue, and I would be forced to agree, but fun.

[00:02:35.000] – Hugh Schofield
In fact, the more you look at languages and words, the more intellectual fun you have, and the more you start to wonder why it is that different people think and express themselves in different ways. The French English divide is particularly curious in this regard. In the words of the critic Lytton Strachey, writing a century or so ago, and I paraphrase, “isn’t it weird that across an arbitrary geographical space of about 20 miles, the Channel, one group of humans thinks that Shakespeare is the bees’ knees and his rough French equivalent, Moliere, a purveyor of rarefied neoclassical waffle …

[00:03:11.420] – Hugh Schofield
and at the other end, another group of humans thinks precisely the opposite”. My feeling after 25 years of living here is that the different ways we use our two languages do reflect something very deep that also separates the ways we function and lead our lives. Though, which comes first, language or behaviour, is entirely moot.  Do the French prefer conceptualizing and thinking in abstracts because their language is full of Latin verbal nouns, or is their language full of those imprecise, highfalutin abstractions because that is the way they like to think.

[00:03:45.170] – Hugh Schofield
Or to use another example, how on earth is it possible for a French journalist to use in a regular report a word like “emphytéotique”? I keep seeing it in news stories and I can assure you that in French it’s every bit as obscure as in English. It comes from Greek via Latin and means a very long term lease on a property. If a British journalist used the word “emphyteotique” which does exist, he or she’d be told they probably weren’t in the right job.

[00:04:12.290] – Hugh Schofield
In France, it’s a badge of honour to know what the word means. To deploy it confers distinction and too bad if ordinary folk don’t have a clue what you’re on about. There again, language an insight into the elitism, that is, for all its Republican garb, so essential in French society. What I’m saying is quite simple. Without the language, we cannot make these observations. Our understanding of our nearest neighbour is necessarily truncated, nor do we have the sheer enjoyment from knowing that when he spits in our direction, he’s sending us a thousand glistening postilions.