Passer le Beurre

I knew some time ago that pilots say “Mayday” in an emergency because it is the Anglicized version of the French “M’Aidez!,” meaning “Help me!” but I recently learned that the reason we call the place where people keep their airplane a hangar is that it is the French word for “shed” or “outhouse.”   I have, in fact, seen many hangars that resemble outhouses, and had it not been for the arrival of the family troops a few years ago to coerce me to discard things that they thought I would never need and assist me in the cleaning operation, I may have had to include my own hangar in that category.   

Three years before I was born, over 70 years ago, the International Civil Aviation Organization decided that English ought to be the exclusive language for radio talk in the airline industry.   Not having a universal language was a formula for disaster.  (It is said that many lives were lost on the Titanic, for example, as a result of there not being clear and monolingual emergency procedures.)   People were flying throughout Europe more often, and although even the word “aviation” itself has somewhat of a French origin, English was taking root as the universal language in the business world, and so English won out.  I imagine that decision riled quite a few people, but it wouldn’t have been the first time the Empire had its way.

“Mayday” had already been in operation by then, allegedly because the English version (S.O.S.) didn’t come across that well over the radio, as was “pan-pan,” the distress call that translates roughly to “I’ve got a problem that I don’t know how to fix and I’m warning you that there might be a mayday on its way if I can’t get my shit together to figure this out.”   Pan-pan derived from the French word “panne” that referred to a breakdown, as opposed to the homonymic pain, which is a loaf of bread.   When you put two loaves of pain together you get pan-pan, which means you’re about to have a breakdown.  I may be boring you now, but I’m having a really good time.   So the Civil Aviation Organization decided to keep those signifiers, while adopting English for pretty much everything else.

In junior high school I was required to take a language.   There were many choices, but for all intents and purposes they narrowed down to two:  Spanish and French.   I wanted to take French, because for reasons that weren’t clear to me at the time, that’s what the prettiest girls were taking, but my father convinced me to take Spanish, because after all, who speaks French in the United States?   He couldn’t imagine I would ever want to travel to France, or have the means to do so.  

As was true for many things, my father knew best, and I don’t regret taking Spanish, well, not too much.   Maybe I do regret it, because after 3 years of classes I can barely get through Pimsleur lesson one.    Whenever I try to speak a foreign language, I am told that I have a great accent but whatever I say makes no sense.  I guess that’s the same problem I have with English; I can read it just fine but comprehension is another thing altogether.  I can also talk a lot without saying anything at all, if you haven’t noticed.

As I mentioned, the word “aviation” has somewhat of a French origin, coined in 1863 by French naval officer Gabriel La Lande from the verb avier.   Avier was a neologism that never caught on, stemming from the Latin word for bird—“avis,” so La Lande fancified it and the word aviation stuck. 

The word “pilot” derives from the 16th century French pilote (someone who steers a ship).  The tube that air runs through and tells us how fast we are going is called a pitot tube, which looks a lot like pilot if you’re not wearing your glasses, so you would think that had French origins as well.   Well, sort of.   The pitot is French alright, but it’s what we call in English a proper noun, meaning it’s someone’s name, because I guess if you’re English and you don’t have a name that would just not be proper.   The pitot tube got its name from its inventor, a French physicist named (how many guesses would you like?) Henri Pitot.

I never did get around to taking French, although I took a few lessons, but my French teacher was very strict and thought somehow that studying ought to be intrinsically motivated.   I was old at the time, and while the lure of pretty girls hadn’t entirely dissipated, as Woody Guthrie said, much of my get up and go had gone up and went.   I suppose I should get back to it—studying French, that is, but I have to figure out instead how best to end this post.   Hmmm. 

2 thoughts on “Passer le Beurre

  1. Ira,

    If you do ever end up taking French (or even any lessons in Spanish), might I suggest that you make sure it is a “conversation” only class. I believe, strongly, that language (other than in college) is taught incorrectly. It should be limited to conversation alone, with minimal (if any) use of writing materials. And if you’d like, I’d be happy to have some conversations (in French or Spanish) with you, as I am fluent in both.

    Good luck, Monsieur Heilveil, mon client et pilot extraordinaire! A bientot!

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