Your appointment smells of elderberries

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Spending a couple of months in Paris frequently exposes me to the wonders of semantic drift. Many of the new French words that I'm learning turn out to be unexpected figurative senses of words that I already knew — though sometimes I need to look them up to realize that I knew them, because the figurative usage is non-obvious.

For example, the picture on the right shows a sign in the window of a local Credit Agricole branch, urging me not to miss the "créneau". What, I wondered, is a créneau, and what would it mean to miss it?

After looking this word up, I realized that I knew its original meaning, namely what I would call in English a "crenellation" or a "crenel" — which the OED glosses as "One of the open spaces or indentations alternating with the merlons or cops of an embattled parapet, used for shooting or launching projectiles upon the enemy". Or as the wordreference dictionary puts it:

créneau nm (ouverture répétée pratiquée sur un parapet): crenation, crenel
_____Les archers tirent depuis les créneaux.

But Crédit Agricole is not worried about manning the auto-insurance battlements — the ad involves one of the figurative extensions of créneau whose existence I had not previously suspected:

créneau nm (temps libre dans un agenda):  slot, time slot, gap, window n
_____Généralement je trouve un créneau dans la semaine pour aller marcher.
créneau nm (temps d'antenne réservé à qqn) slot n
_____Les annonceurs recherchent des créneaux en début de soirée.
créneau nm (segment de marché en expansion) market opportunity n
_____Actuellement la tablette électronique est un créneau porteur.
créneau nm (manœuvre pour se garer) parallel parking n

Several of the figurative extensions of créneau correspond in English to figurative extensions of slot, which according to the OED was originally (from about 1400) "The slight depression or hollow running down the middle of the breast".

Slot then developed extended senses like

"An elongated narrow depression or perforation made in the thickness of a piece of timber, etc., usually for the reception of some other part or piece, whether fixed or movable" (from 1523);
"The opening in a slot-machine for the reception of a coin" (from 1888);
"The middle of the semi-circular or horseshoe-shaped desk at which a newspaper's sub-editors work, occupied by the chief sub-editor" (from 1917);
"Aeronaut. A linear gap in an aerofoil, running parallel to its leading edge, which allows the passage of air from the lower to the upper surface and so increases the lift" (from 1920).

I was not surprised to learn that the sense "A marked-out parking space" dates only from 1944.

But I wouldn't have guessed that the sense "A position in a list, hierarchy, system, or scheme; a position to be filled; a category; a place or division in a timetable, esp. in broadcasting" was not attested before 1942.

And it's interesting that créneau and slot both extended to "time slots" and "parking slots" (though créneau is apparently only the parallel-to-the-curb kind), while créneau also extended to the "market segment" sense for which English mostly uses niche.

I had read about literal créneaux in sources like Le Comte de Monte Cristo. And of course my strongest immediate association with French parapets is the Monty Python taunting scene:

The OED gives crenel an etymology that also connects it to kernel and cranny:

Etymology: < Old French (12th cent.) crenel, plural creniaus (modern French créneau , -eaux). Old French variants were kernel , karnel , whence also English carnel n.1, kernel n.2 q.v. The French word is apparently diminutive of cren , cran notch (of which however Littré has no example before 15th cent.); see crena n. and compare cranny n.

So anyhow, does it mean anything that the French etymology sees appointment times, schedule segments, and parking spaces as figurative openings in a defensive wall made for "shooting or launching projectiles upon the enemy", while English speakers see them figuratively as shaped depressions made to allow pieces of wood to be fit together into useful structures?

Probably not. But the etymological fallacy is often tempting.

[Update — Looking up the C/A "mois de l'auto" campaign on line, I see that it's actually a special deal for auto loans at an interest rate of 2.9%, with two months of free insurance thrown in. So I think the "créneau" in question is the limited period of time during which the offer is good.]



  1. ThomasH said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 6:31 am

    Is this perhaps Credit Agricole's way of urging people not to have "gaps" in their insurance coverage? There is a US insurance company (Farmers?) with such a campaign.

    [(myl) Yes, that makes sense — though I'm not sure whether they mean "things left out of the policy" or "time after a policy lapses".

    And so I guess I should have pursued English "gap" as well as "slot" and "niche" — for which the OED's etymology is

    Etymology:  < Old Norse gap chasm (only in the mythological name Ginnunga-gap ), wide-mouthed outcry (Swedish gap , Danish gab open mouth, also opening, chasm); noun related to Old Norse and Swedish gapa , Danish gabe to gape v.

    My first thought, though, given the time-slot and parking-slot meanings, was that they're telling people not to miss their chance to get some kind of special deal during "le mois de l'auto"…]

  2. D-AW said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 8:00 am

    I wasn't aware of the etymology of "slot" – I fear this knowledge has now contaminated my notion of def. 2j [OED2, 1993 additions]: "Ice Hockey. An unmarked area in front of the goal affording the best position for an attacking player to make a successful shot at goal.", illustrated here:

  3. Breffni said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 8:27 am

    I'd guess it's a play on both the "window of opportunity" sense (catch the offer before the month's out) and the "parallel-parking space" sense, assuming "rater le créneau" can mean "mess up the parking manoeuvre" (which might lead to an insurance claim).

  4. FM said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    There is yet another word with a relevant figurative extension — I would translate this as "don't miss the [time] window".

  5. D-AW said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 8:53 am

    So I think the "créneau" in question is the limited period of time during which the offer is good. … they're telling people not to miss their chance to get some kind of special deal during "le mois de l'auto"

    I'd agree with this analysis. "Window" or "opening" might be a cognate metaphor in English.

  6. Lisa said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 9:55 am

    Where do people say "parking slot?" I'm a native English speaker from the west coast of Canada and I don't think I've ever heard that.

  7. Keith said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    Crédit Agricole is making a neat little pun by saying "ne ratez pas le créneau". As your research found, it means "don't miss this opportunity", but also means "don't do a bad job of parallel parking", so you could take it to mean "don't miss out, don't mess up".

    Quite a good pun for a car loan.

    A more literal use of the word "créneau" is in the term "monter au crénau" meaning "to enter the debate", or "come to somebody's defence" as in the articles at the links below.

  8. Bobbie said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    I learned about crenellations in a course describing Northern European architecture. (The nooks and crannies on Dutch roof-lines come to mind)
    As a native English speaker from the East Coast of the U. S. I would say "parking space" but not "parking slot". I don't think I have every heard that usage either.
    BTW, a lot of drivers seem unable to manage parallel parking. I am so glad it was part of my Driver's Ed curriculum! And I can still perform a 3-point parking maneuver!

  9. Bean said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 11:43 am

    @D-AW That's a much bigger slot than I'm used to… I think of it as much narrower, between the face-off circles, and thus more slot-shaped and less fan-shaped. Perhaps the usage varies a bit by region?

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    Around here a parking slot is an assigned place reserved for a pogue, leaving the grunts to park far away from their cubicles.

  11. D-AW said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 12:57 pm

    @Bean I would use it pretty much the same as you (except maybe the "high slot" is a bit wider) but it does seem to be labelled differently on various diagrams online. But yes, more, slot-shaped, even in the etymological sense.

  12. Ron said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 3:32 pm

    I've never seen "créneau" for "time slot" before (or for "parking space" for that matter), just battlement. I was in Paris recently and when making reservations found that restaurants used "horaire" to mean "available time slot."

    [(myl) From current news stories:

    Une fois le prestataire choisi, il peut faire une réservation en ligne sur le créneau de son choix

    Aujourd'hui, le basket refuse des adhérents par manque de créneaux horaires

    Hung Zu Chao organise quatre séances « exceptionnelles » de dégustation (en dehors de ses créneaux habituels),

    Les dirigeants ansériens se sont tournés vers la municipalité pour obtenir de nouveaux créneaux horaires pour l'occupation de la salle.

    L'opérateur n'a sans doute pas connaissance des dates exactes mais "réserve" ces créneaux. À prendre donc au conditionnel.

    On aura de moins en moins de créneaux pour les trains de marchandises


  13. Ron said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 11:03 am

    @MYL Very cool, thanks!

  14. John Lawler said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 12:30 pm

    Crenel clearly belongs with cranny, crack, and others in the KR- phonosemantic assonance class.

    But it wasn't in the original list; thanks, Mark.

  15. Nicole said,

    June 13, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

    If you like créneau, you'll love fourchette.

  16. Nicole said,

    June 13, 2015 @ 11:51 pm

    PS, for Ron, what get at a restaurant is not a time slot, as the French seldom try to turn the table, and treating diners as though they were in a reserved créneau would be simply awful. They are simply asking, using the best of all possible manners, at what time you would like to eat.

    In administrative situations, however, the word créneau is used to schedule everything all the time: room reservations, individual appointments, even sometimes to schedule meetings with colleagues. I know it sees heavy use as I find myself mistyping it at work easily one a day.

  17. stephen said,

    June 15, 2015 @ 9:46 am

    What does this have to do with my appointment smelling of elderberries?
    I'll just go ask google what elderberries smell like.

  18. James Wimberley said,

    June 15, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

    BTW, who on earth are the "dirigeants ansériens"? Is there a French Mother Goose Party?

  19. John said,

    June 15, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    @ stephen:

    Watch the Monty Python clip in the post, in which, from a crenellation, a French soldier taunts his opponents by saying "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries." The suggestion being that said mother was promiscuous (hamsters breed rapidly) and said father was a drunk (elderberries are used to make alcohol, especially in France).

  20. sff9 said,

    June 17, 2015 @ 8:54 am

    And it's interesting that créneau and slot both extended to "time slots" and "parking slots" (though créneau is apparently only the parallel-to-the-curb kind)

    "Créneau" is the name of the parallel parking maneuver, not of the parking space itself. Maybe some people say "il y a un créneau ici" to mean "il y a un endroit où on peut faire un créneau”, but I never heard it.

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