Thursday, October 4, 2007

Wild rabbits and environmental issues

Often, I like to see how new words have come into existence. And sometimes, to understand a new word that appears to be modern— a neologism, as they are called—you have to start a long way back in time. Let me tell you how a curious new word has appeared in French.

It's a roundabout story, which starts with rabbits. As an Australian brought up in a country town, I've always thought I knew a little bit about these animals. On countless occasions, out in the bush, I saw my father take his rifle from the back of the Jeep to shoot rabbits. They were Dad's number-one enemy, because they consumed the precious grass intended for his beef cattle. In France, I discovered that the word lapin designates the huge backyard rabbit reared in cages for meat. To talk about small wild rabbits running around in the fields and forests, as in Australia, the French use the expression lapin de garenne.

Most French people, asked to define a garenne, would probably reply that this word designates patches of uncultivated land in the country where you're likely to find wild rabbits. In the Middle Ages, a garenne was a hunting reserve. At that time, in Paris, much of the land to the south of the place where the Eiffel Tower now stands was a swampy garenne. Finally, it was cleaned up and cultivated by the monks of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, who grew vegetables there. The track leading down to the former garenne came to be called the rue Garanelle, and this was later changed to rue de Grenelle. From the start of the 18th century, numerous aristocratic mansions—called hôtels in French—were erected in this fashionable street.

One of these splendid dwellings was the home of the Duke of Châtelet [nothing to do with the famous square of that name in the center of the city]. When this gentleman was guillotined in 1777, the Hôtel du Châtelet became state property. For many years, it was the palace of the archbishop of Paris. After the separation between the State and the Church became law, in 1905, the Republic asked the archbishop to pack his bags, and the noble mansion was henceforth occupied by the ministry of Employment.

In this building, on 25/26 May 1968, at the height of the social turmoil in France [referred to, since then, as mai 68], representatives of the government of Georges Pompidou [including a certain young secretary of state named Jacques Chirac] negotiated with trade unions and management organizations, resulting in a 25% increase in the basic wage, an average 10% increase in effective salaries, and the adoption of the 40-hour working week. Since then, the historic outcome of this meeting has been referred to as the accords de Grenelle [Grenelle agreement].

Today, the name of the street where this agreement was signed has become a common noun in everyday French: grenelle [still spelled incorrectly, most often, with an uppercase G]. The new word is used to designate a major national get-together involving participants, often with widely differing viewpoints, who are intent upon achieving a consensus. At the present moment, for example, a vast process of debate and study aimed at finding solutions to environmental problems is designated by this neologism: the grenelle of the environment. For wild rabbits, that's a big hop.

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