Journalists have the tendency toward a morbid sense of humor as a defense mechanism against what we see on the job—same as cops, funeral directors, coroners, etc.—especially on the news side of things (guys who disintegrate when hit by an 18-wheeler, literally faceless motorcycle riders who refused to wear a helmet … don’t get me started). Over on the opinion side of the newspaper, we don’t see blood and guts as much as we do petulance and narcissism (not in us, of course … we’re absolutely delightful).
It should thus come as no surprise that, even as so many of us were horrified by the fire at Notre Dame last Monday, we couldn’t help but joke a little about it, especially after a certain non-firefighter offered advice on how to put out the fire. Advice that was soundly rejected by those in the know in France, and that could have weakened the structure beyond repair.
A smart-aleck at the newspaper (gosh, have no idea who that might be) remarked to a longtime friend and co-worker that perhaps if they used a trebuchet they would be able to localize the destruction, like you might want to do if your neighbor decided to construct the ugliest potting shed known to man right next to your fence (don’t do that, please … either thing … seriously).
Really, she just likes the word “trebuchet.” She’s a weirdo. But, in a way, she was keeping with the spirit of Notre Dame, built in the Middle Ages. Trebuchet, in addition to being a lot of fun to say is, after all, a medieval French word.
So there. She wasn’t just avoiding debating reality with stubborn people because it gives her a headache (and good Lord it does). She was earning word-nerd cred.
Occasionally we’ll hear “trebuchet” during a pumpkin-chucking contest (it’s great for hurling the gourds long distances) or the odd Renaissance Faire, but it’s not used all that much in everyday language, and that’s a shame. Some people prefer to use the word “catapult” (a trebuchet is a specific type of catapult). Party poopers.
While the stone-throwing siege machine has been around for longer in other physical forms, “trebuchet” the word has been around since the 12th century, taking its name from trabuchier from the 11th century, meaning “to overturn, fall to the ground, overthrow,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
Rebels in Syria and Ukraine made the news a few years back after using trebuchets, but the medieval weapon is unlikely to become a part of the modern military’s arsenal. When people can pretty easily build their own, what use is there for weapons manufacturers? Why, there’ll be anarchy!
The name of another bit of weaponry came from France in the 15th century, near the end of the Middle Ages. “Cannon” descended from canon, and the Italian cannone, and refers to the mounted cylinder that propels projectiles using gunpowder. You don’t want to get it mixed up with the imaging company, law, or sacred text.
Knights (also from the Middle Ages) and their armies had various tools with which they waged battle, including a wooden siege tower on wheels called a belfry, called berfroi in French. By the mid-15th century, the use of the word to mean bell tower was common. Whether any bats were involved is a mystery.
And I just realized how many different weapons they used in those times. Weapons makers must have been raking it in then, too.
But trebuchet, cannon and belfry are far from the only medieval French words still used today. “Curfew,” the bane of teenagers, is from curfeu from the early 14th century, meaning an evening bell rung at a fixed hour as a signal to put out home fires and lights (the word literally means “cover fire”). By the 1800s, reports the Online Etymology Dictionary, the modern sense was in use. And kids then probably didn’t like it any more than the ones today. (But Mom, all the other kids are storming the castle!)
“Umbrage,” from ombrage in the early 15th century, originally meant shadow or darkness or being in shade. The modern sense, meaning the suspicion you have been slighted, has been in use since the 17th century.
Even in the really old days, people were throwing shade. Lord, I never thought I’d use that phrase.
Some of the Notre Dame relics, such as the remains of two saints stored in the spire, are believed to be lost to the fire, but the word “relics” is not. In the 11th century,the French word relique came into being, taken after the Latin (as many French words were) for “remains of a martyr.” By a couple of centuries later when it made it into Middle English, the spelling had changed, and the meaning was just a little broader: a body part or other object belonging to a holy person. Now it mostly means an object from an earlier time. Or a person.
And do I feel old right now.
All these words and more are still in use in some way, if spottily. There are others, such as homage, chivalry and visor, that we use frequently without thinking about their medieval French lineage (also a medieval French word). Other words could stand a little attention and use.
Gramercy, which we usually associate with the park in New York, was an interjection (cue Schoolhouse Rock) meaning thanks or expressing surprise in the 1300s, coming from the French gran merci, which translates to “many thanks” … but who uses it like that anymore? Perchance showed up in the mid-14th century from the French par cheance, meaning “by chance,” and tends to find its way into word-nerd writings but not much else. And ague, from the 1300s and meaning acute fever, is rarely seen outside crossword puzzles.
Words from the Middle Ages and beyond are wasting away waiting for someone to notice them again. Don’t make the word nerds do all the work. Some of us need a nap. And fluffy kitties. And chocolate.