Maison d'être

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Note from June Teufel Dreyer: "Driving around Coconut  Grove [Miami neighborhood] to admire old houses on back streets, [daughter] Elizabeth [Dreyer Geay] and I saw one with a plaque on the perimeter wall that read 'Maison d'Etre'":

Elizabeth remarks:

I sent it to the family WhatsApp group that my French in-laws are on, and though I wouldn't say they were bewildered, I just had one response from my MIL: "…Miami?" whereas usually they all chime in a bit more on whatever it is.  And it got me to thinking, perhaps it's one of those French phrases that we anglophones use but the French don't seem to, like "déjà vu" or "double entendre".  I did a little rooting around on wordreference.com, and there are quite a few forum discussions in which people are really struggling with the right way to translate it.  It really depends on the context.  So my conclusion is that in French, this is just a string of words that might be used in any number of situations, but it's been adopted into English as a specific dictum.

Anyway WE had a big old laugh when we saw this sign :)

I have always considered "raison d'être" one of my favorite French expressions, though I must admit that I would find it hard to render in English (that's why I sometimes use the French expression in speaking and writing — when it perfectly fits the thought I want to convey).  "Maison d'être" might actually be easier to translate into English.



39 Comments »

  1. Dan Romer said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 3:38 pm

    Very funny! And I wonder what goes on inside?

  2. Keith Ivey said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 3:53 pm

    What do you think it has that "reason for being" lacks?

  3. Laura Morland said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 3:55 pm

    Very interesting. I knew, of course, that « déjà vu » is not a term of art in French, but it had never occurred to me that « raison d'être » would fall into the category of "stock phrases that we've borrowed from French that don't have the same resonance in the original language."

    I just read all those Forum threads on WordReference (https://www.wordreference.com/fren/raison%20d'%C3%AAtre) and I agree with you, as most of the suggested translations — they varied by context — were NOT "reason for being," but more specifically targeted phrases.

    E.g., "n'a probablement aucune raison d'être" is translated as "irrelevant"; in another context (having to do with taxes), the phrase "essential purpose" was deemed the best equivalent of « raison d'être ».

    Nevertheless, given the French penchant for puns in business names (two that pop into my mind are « Cinq à sec » for a dry cleaning chain, and « L'Arbre à cadres » for my favorite frame shop), I'm a bit surprised that your French family was not amused.

  4. Levantine said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

    Laura Morland, with regard to "déjà vu", what do you mean by "term of art"? If Wikipedia is anything to go by, the term is used in French to describe the same sensation it does in English:

    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9j%C3%A0-vu

  5. Rick said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 5:38 pm

    @Keith Ivey: I would think it has a certain je ne sais quoi.

  6. Paul Turpin said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 6:45 pm

    There is an ale brewed in Stockholm called Saison d'etre.

  7. John Wilkins said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 7:08 pm

    It is now the official name of my newly purchased home.

  8. cameron said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 8:40 pm

    @Keith Ivey, @Rick:

    It definitely has a certain je ne sais quoi, but I don't know what it is . . .

  9. Miles Archer said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 9:12 pm

    If I ever made wine it would be called raisin d'etre

  10. Samuel Buggeln said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 9:53 pm

    It's the kind of pun the French adore, and lucky them because their phonic system is such that they have a lot more rhymes than we do in English. Who wouldn't want to live in the House of Being?

  11. AG said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 12:14 am

    I also heard they use a landscaping company called Coup de Grass.

  12. Keith said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 3:17 am

    It would have been funnier if that tree next to the gate had been a beech.

    I'm sure I once saw a photo of a florist's shop on a street corner, the shop's name is "Blümen Eck".

    And a quick look at images.google.com finds a few.
    https://www.google.com/search?q=Blümen+Eck+shop

  13. Charles in toronto said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 8:43 am

    My university French prof taught us that a more common use of "déjà vu" is to mean "outmoded". As in, it's very "already seen", not something novel.

  14. TKMair said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 8:45 am

    Lovely comments, sans doute.

  15. Andy Stow said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 9:30 am

    Dogfish Head Brewing has a beer brewed with raisins called "Raison D'Etra", and an even stronger version, "Raison D'Extra".

  16. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 9:42 am

    "Who wouldn't want to live in the House of Being?"

    But would it be living, or merely existing?

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 10:09 am

    In seventh-grade French class, the teacher handed out a drawing of the maison d'être which showed a house with stick figures coming, going, climbing, descending, falling—all the verbs that are conjugated with être. Was that just Mme. Swan's idea?

    I didn't get the play on raison d'être till years later, though I'd seen the phrase. In fact, I suggested that the house could be changed to a hospital to illustrate the two verbs that weren't illustrated in the house, naître and mourir.

  18. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 1:42 pm

    Though of course is is perfectly possible to be born or to die in a house. Indeed, I remember that the episode of my French textbook which introduced this construction referred to 'la maison où je suis née'.

  19. KevinM said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

    Elsinore?

  20. Chandra said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 3:04 pm

    Two more to add to this list are "sacré bleu", and "ooh la la" with its nudge-wink connotation. The only time I've ever heard anything like the latter produced by a francophone, it was a rapid-fire "o la la la la" expressed in dismay.

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 5:23 pm

    @ Keith: There's a flower shop in Edinburgh called Bloemen Ecke. I have only ever wondered how and why they managed to mash Dutch and German together that way. Until I read your comment in the context of this thread, it never occurred to me that it might be a play on words. Now I don't know how on earth I missed it.

    @Chandra: Yes, "oh la la" is definitely used for annoyance in French, not for anything that English speakers think it is used for. On the other hand, think of all the English "words" in French that don't exist in English, like le footing or le mobbing. This process definitely goes both ways.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

    Andrew (not the same one): Though of course is is perfectly possible to be born or to die in a house.

    Quite true, though that didn't happen much in our world. Maybe I thought, in my seventh-grade way, that Mme. Swan's reason for leaving naître and mourir unillustrated was that they mostly happened in hospitals, instead of not wanting to illustrate those two concepts or something.

    There are now several versions of la maison d'être on the Web, and they do show naître (some with a stork) and mourir.

  23. K said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 7:04 pm

    I immediately thought of the maison d'être from learning French in school. I also never saw it as a pun but just a bland-but-useful mnemonic like so many in school.

  24. Ray said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 8:44 pm

    this all reminds me of that retro burlesque house on the simpsons called "La Maison Derrière" (how derrière made its way from french to english and back again)

  25. loonquawl said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 5:36 am

    Raison d'etre is an idiom in german too, so the maison got a chuckle out of me – could someone shed some light on the Blümen Eck (@Keith @BobLadd ?) – 'Blume' is flower in german, 'Blü..' could conceivably be pronounced somewhat like 'blue' but i did not get anywhere in my musings on the punny-ness.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 6:10 am

    Blümen Eck <- "Bloomin[g] heck" <- "Bl@@dy h@ll". Allegedly Yorkshire usage.

  27. Rick said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 11:11 am

    If we're getting into other languages, here's a Vietnamese restaurant in Beaverton, Oregon: Pho King Good. http://www.phokinggood.net/

  28. Trogluddite said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 1:02 pm

    @Rick: "Pho King Good"
    English only in this case, but you reminded me of a furniture company who allegedly created a bit of a stir among folks with delicate sensibilities – their deals were advertised as "Sofa King Good".

    Re: "Maison d'etre"
    During an idle few minutes of Googling, I encountered what might be counted as a further level of punning. It is also the name of a London coffee shop; which got me thinking – in the local Cockney accent "House of Being" might be pronounced much the same as "House of Bean"!

  29. Trogluddite said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 1:07 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    I can't vouch for "bloomin' 'eck" having originated in Yorkshire, but it certainly is still used very often by Tykes of my generation and older.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 2:06 pm

    In addition to the obvious maison/raison wordplay, this seemed like an allusion to something else, but it wasn't quite on the tip of my tongue so it took until lunch time today to excavate from the dim recesses of memory that Heidegger famously (well, famously in certain select circles …) said "language is the house of being." ("Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins.") I admittedly haven't bothered to look into how French translations of Heidegger render that passage, but I feel reasonably confident that it's a signal that the owners of the house are happy for Language Log readers to drop in uninvited.

  31. cameron said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

    @J.W. Brewer – yes, that line from Heidegger is generally rendered in French as "la langue est la maison de l'être" – just a wee definite article away from the pun in question.

  32. Chandra said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 2:56 pm

    @cameron – Which itself could lead to further punning, i.e. "la langue est la maison de lettres".

  33. Theodore said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 4:14 pm

    So, would the "s" in Old French "estre" be considered the "elision d'être"?

  34. Anthony said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 11:55 pm

    Dasein for Living

  35. Nancy said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 10:18 am

    As a professional name developer, I've long envied Maison d'Etre, the name of a household-goods store in Oakland, California. It opened in the Rockridge neighborhood in 2002 after doing business for years in San Francisco. From the website's About page: "Maison d'Etre playfully suggests the store's reason for being, to celebrate life at home."

  36. jin defang said,

    November 9, 2019 @ 2:39 pm

    to the derriere comment: there actually is a restaurant in Paris called Derriere. I'd assumed it was a lingerie emporium, but turns out it's located in an old home that's located behind the row of houses that face the street.

  37. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    November 10, 2019 @ 12:05 pm

    I was in Karlsruhe, Germany, a few summers ago and saw a store named "Bad Design Studio".

  38. Monscampus said,

    November 12, 2019 @ 7:31 pm

    @Michèle

    Don't feel bad about it. As (almost) every house or flat has a bathroom, it's not really surprising bath designers are in demand. What surprises me is that they didn't call it "Bath Design Studio". You could also visit lots of spas in Germany, usually called "Bad Something". Not really a pun.

    About houses to be born or die in, what comes next? I suggest the old-fashioned word Beinhaus (ossuary), i. e. a House of Bones rather than one of Being.

  39. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    November 15, 2019 @ 1:32 am

    @Monscampus: I didn't think it was a pun. I just thought it weird that they mixed languages to the point where it makes sense in English, but perhaps not the sense they wanted it to. My friend from Hannover and I laughed about it "but what if we want the *Good* Design Studio?"

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