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Learning French Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics


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tromper to deceive; to cheat. Cognate with trumpet. According to A. Brachet, an etymologist, this word means "properly to play the horn, alluding to quacks and mountebanks, who attracted the public by blowing a horn, and then cheated them into buying; thence to cheat".

écarter to separate, to remove. écart gap. From ex- (“to remove”) + carte. It originally meant “putting the cards aside” in card-playing.

chauve bald. Cognate with callow (“immature”, “inexperienced”; previously “bald”). Chauvinism is named after “Nicolas Chauvin, a legendary and excessively patriotic soldier of the French First Republic” (Wiktionary). The surname Chauvin literally or originally means “bald man”. Alternatively, think of the common image of a group of right-wing chauvinists that are bald-headed.

(They are sample headword entries from my Learning French Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics, which makes use of etymology to help you remember French words, and failing that, suggests a mnemonic.)

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gré liking, will (n.). Cognate with grace (“free favor from God” in religious context). Often used in phrases such as contre le gré (“against the will”), à son gré (“to his liking”). See also malgré (“in spite of”).

bijou jewelry. Celtic origin. Use “bead jewel” as a mnemonic. Try pronouncing d and j lightly.

meurtrier murderer (n.); murderous (adj.). meurtre murder (n.). These words are cognate with English murder if traced to Proto-Germanic. Note that there’s no doublet in French matching English murder as a verb; use assassiner or simply tuer instead.

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chouette owl; (informal) cool (adj. or interj.), great. In the sense of “owl”, it’s cognate with chough (a crow-like bird), but folk etymology believes it’s from chat (“cat”) + hurler (“to howl”). The second sense, “cool”, is not clear in origin; it’s somewhat unthinkable an interjection of “Cool!” would sound like the hoot of an owl or the meow of a cat. Use a mnemonic such as “Sweet!” For old-timers, use “Swell!” instead. Not related to chute (“fall”).

parapluie umbrella. From para- (“to guard against”) + pluie (“rain”). The prefix is cognate with parry (“to ward off”), doublet with parer (“to fend off”). If you happen to know Spanish, you may think of the word to mean “for rain”, which serves as a good mnemonic. See also parer.

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terrible terrible (cognate), horrible; (informal) terrific (cognate), excellent, formidable (as in French, not English). Note the meaning in informal or colloquial usage. While all derived from the same Latin source, English separates the two opposite meanings into terrible and terrific but French keeps one form, taking different meanings according to context and tone of speaking voice.

baiser kiss (n.); (vulgar) to fuck (v.). Cognate with an outdated English word buss (“kiss”). Use a mnemonic such as “He gave his girlfriend Beth a kiss.” Be very careful with the meaning of baiser used as a verb. It used to mean “to kiss”, which nowadays is embrasser in French. You can use the word as a noun (in spite of the -er ending) without such concern. Not to be confused with baisser (“to lower”).

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répartir to share, to distribute, to divide. Not to be confused with repartir (“to leave again”, “to restart”), which has a higher frequency. Historically, the sense of “to share” appeared first. When the sense “to leave again” appeared, the form for “to share” changed its prefix from re- to - to avoid confusion. Only as a mnemonic, think of re- for simple repetition (“again”) and the slightly less simple - for a more unusual meaning, in this case, “to share”.

palme palm tree leaf; swimfin, flipper (for swimming or diving). Note that English palm, a cognate, combines two meanings in one word: “palm tree or leaf”, which is palme in French, and “palm of hand”, which is paume in French. To help remember the difference, as a mnemonic, think of l in palme as the tree trunk while u in paume means the palm is spread out. The meaning of “swimfin” is because a swimfin resembles a palm leaf. See also paume.

cingler to whip, to lash, to beat with a strap, fouetter; to sail. cinglé (informal) crazy. In the first sense of cingler, it’s cognate with cingle (“girdle”, “belt”), cinch (“saddle girth”). In the second sense, it’s cognate with sail if traced to Proto-Germanic, but probably influenced by the first sense (wind beats the sail). The meaning “crazy” of cinglé is from an old idiom which literally means “to beat the nose” but figuratively “to get drunk”. As a mnemonic, consider the fact that unmarried or single people are on average more likely to develop dementia (become crazy) in later life.

(Note: These are sample words from my to-be-published book Learning French Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics, The words are arranged in usage frequency order. Underlined words serve as clues in a mnemonic.)

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I have completed writing my book, Learning French Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics: A New Approach to Vocabulary Study. Please see http://yong321.freeshell.org/lfw/ for details. Unfortunately, I was not able to convince a publisher to have it published. In the meantime, I can accept donation for a free copy of the book, on the condition that the book is not shared beyond your immediate family. Any comment or critique or correction is very welcome.

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More sample words:

inhabituel unusual, uncustomary. Since habituel means “usual”, “customary”, “habitual”, this word with the in- prefix means exactly the opposite. Just don’t confuse it with English inhabit (which would be habiter in French) or its related words. The key to remember is that English prefix in- here means “in”, “within”, “inside” while French in- signifies negation. Thus, for instance, English inhabitable is French habitable, English uninhabitable is French inhabitable.

épater to amaze, to flabbergast. épatant amazing, stupefying, splendid. The root is patte (“animal’s paw or leg”). It’s said the word originally referred to breaking off (é-) the foot (patte) of a glass, by an angry gambler (Cf. Charles Virmaître, Dictionnaire d'argot fin-de-siècle). Actually, this word is more about “to amaze or impress (with talent etc.)” than “to surprise or alarm” in general. English idiom knock off one’s feet (as on hearing one winning a grand prize) is a good match literally and figuratively, although its origin is unlikely related to this French word. If you know Spanish, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that Spanish despatarrar (where pata means “leg”) can also mean “to amaze”, as well as, if used reflexively, “to open legs wide” or “to manspread”. See also patte.

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gaspiller to waste. Uncertain etymology. According to one theory, it is cognate with spill. Use a mnemonic such as “Look, gas (gasoline) spills. You’re wasting it.” or “Gas spillage is a waste.”

béquille crutch; (bicycle or motorcycle) kickstand. From bec (“beak of a bird”). The crosspiece on top of the crutch resembles a bird’s beak.

bourguignon Burgundian. From Latin Burgundionem, where the -ndi- group easily lost d. If we trace to Proto-Indo-European, the name Burgundy is cognate with burg and borough, which are part of the names of many US towns. 

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