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BÊTE NOIRE

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BÊTE NOIRE

Postby Dr. Goodword » Wed Apr 20, 2005 11:47 pm

• bête noire •

Pronunciation: bet nwah(r)

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A threat, something feared and to be avoided, a bane, something that makes life miserable for an individual or organization.

Notes: Today's word is good for representing any distasteful threat. Because it is actually a French phrase, it has no relatives in English with one possible exception. Some people, with good reason, refer to the red bug, sometimes called a chigger or jigger (the larval Thrombidium), that burrows under the skin, causing relentless itching, a bête rouge "red beast". In A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh wrote, "He had picked up bêtes rouges in the bush and they were crawling and burrowing under his skin."

In Play: Many of us have personal bêtes noires, "The Vietnamese War turned into a bête noire of President Lyndon Johnson, one that he could not evade." But a bête noire need not be so large, "Gladys Friday's bête noire in high school was mathematics until she fell in love with a geek with a full-function calculator she could keep out of the visual range of her teacher."

Word History: Any time you see a hat on a French vowel, you know that an [s] used to follow it. So bête was beste when we borrowed it for our beast; it originated in Latin bestia "beast". French noir "black" devolved from Latin niger "black". The [g] was lost because French vowels are rather merciless to lone consonants stranded between them. This is also how Latin vitellus "calf" ended up as Middle French veal when we borrowed it. The fact that the same word is veau [vo] "calf" in French today suggests that they are just as mean to any lone consonant without another consonant to lean on. (Today we thank Chris Stewart, a long-standing bête blanche of Good Words and a friend from the very first Word-of-the-Day days.)
Last edited by Dr. Goodword on Thu Apr 21, 2005 11:10 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Postby Brazilian dude » Wed Apr 20, 2005 11:56 pm

Any time you see a hat on a French vowel, you know that an [s] used to follow it.

I think that's partially true. Take for example French âme, which comes from Latin anima.

How come the plural for bête rouge is bêtes rouges and for bête noire is bête noires?

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Postby Apoclima » Thu Apr 21, 2005 1:16 am

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Postby Brazilian dude » Thu Apr 21, 2005 8:41 am

I'll take that as a compliment.

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Hmmm.

Postby Dr. Goodword » Thu Apr 21, 2005 11:13 am

Which is worse: a bad hair day or a bad (grammatical) number day? My hair is fine.
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Postby M. Henri Day » Thu Apr 21, 2005 4:11 pm

Brazilian dude wrote:
Any time you see a hat on a French vowel, you know that an [s] used to follow it.

I think that's partially true. Take for example French âme, which comes from Latin anima.
...

BD's point is well taken, even if the provenance from Latin anima would not necessarily (logically) exclude an early French form with an «s» after the initial «a». But in fact, if the Dictionnaire de l'Académie, neuvième édition is to be believed - and who would dare not - no such forms seem to have existed :
(1)ÂME n. f. XIe siècle, anerme ; XIIe siècle, anme. Du latin anima, proprement « air ; souffle ».

Indeed, examining the other words listed under this entry, one sees that «â» seems to have been used to replace both an «an» and an «as» in older French, or indeed, a simple (long) «a» :
(3)BLÂMER v. tr. XIe siècle. Du latin populaire *blastemare, « faire des reproches », altération du latin chrétien blasphemare, « blasphémer » ...

(4)INFÂME adj. XIVe siècle. Emprunté du latin infamis, « mal famé, décrié ».

My guess would be that «â» in modern French simply indicates a long «a», irrespective of provenance. I am not, however, aware of any words in modern French written with «ê» which are not derivatives of words earlier written with «es», as in «beste» --> «bête». Counterexamples, anyone ?...

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Postby Apoclima » Fri Apr 22, 2005 12:05 am

Thanks, BD and Henri! I was told that myth, too, long ago. It is interesting to find out that it clearly isn't true for "â."

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