Calling Benjamin Lee Whorf

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What do a baker, a shepherd, and a drummer have in common?

You can add an orchestra conductor, Harry Potter, and a drill sergeant.

Hint: this is in French.

Answer: A central focus of their lives is one or more baguettes — which in English variously translates as "stick", "wand", "rod", "baton", "staff", "chopstick", "drumstick", and (of course) "baguette". There's also a slang usage meaning "legs" (apparently analogous to English pins).

The WordReference entry cites idioms including "faire marcher [qqn] à la baguette", translated as "rule with an iron hand | an iron fist | a rod of iron". And similarly "mener [qqn] à la baguette", variously translated as "keep [sb] on a tight leash", "have [sb] under your thumb", "push [sb] around".

The Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française adds a number of other meanings, including:

Ornement de forme mince et allongée. DÉCORATION. Moulure ronde ou plate courant sur les murs pour en rompre l'uniformité ou pour encadrer un panneau, un tableau, une glace. Baguette dorée, guillochée. Spécialt. Baguette d'électricité, moulure creuse servant à protéger et à dissimuler les fils électriques. – BONNETERIE. Ornement linéaire courant le long d'un bas, d'une chaussette ou d'un gant. Des chaussettes à baguettes. – COUT. Ourlet d'assemblage en relief. Couture sur baguette, utilisée pour les pantalons d'homme.

And the TLFi entry adds a bunch more, in domains from architecture to automobile design.

(Of course, breadsticks in French are not baguettes but rather gressins.)

To add to the fun: The Wiktionnaire entry tells us that the etymology is

De l’italien bacchetta, issu probablement du latin baculum (« bâton ») par l’intermédiaire d’un latin vulgaire *baccus, bacculus.

…and the entry for Latin baculum gives the etymology

Apparenté au grec βάκτρον, báktron, βακτηρία, baktêria de même sens

…from which we can guess where English bacterium comes from:

From New Latin bactērium, from Ancient Greek βακτήριον (baktḗrion, “small staff”), from βακτηρία (baktēría).

The same entry offers a picture to explain why, if you didn't already know.

This whole lexico-semantic area is clearly ripe for neo-Whorfian exploration :-)…



  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2023 @ 11:01 am

    Now I am curious as to the extent to which languages that use "classifiers" or "counter words" (what Beckwith dubbed "phoronyms") do or don't group all of those differently-named (in English) but vaguely-similarly-shaped objects into the same class of nouns. Just looking at wikipedia for some examples, Japanese uses 本 for "Long, thin objects: rivers, roads, train tracks, ties, pencils, bottles, guitars; also, metaphorically, telephone calls … train or bus routes, movies, home runs …" Chinese uses 根 for "thin, slender, pole, stick objects (needles, pillars, telegraph poles, matchsticks, etc.); strands (e.g. hair)" but 支 or 枝 for "fairly long, stick-like objects (pens, chopsticks, roses, rifles, etc.)."

  2. JPL said,

    April 29, 2023 @ 4:43 pm

    So it looks like you can add 'argumentum ad baculum', a term in the logic of argument for "scare tactics", where the acceptance of a claim depends (illegitimately) on an appeal to fear (the "baton", or better, "the cudgel", or the "rod of iron", looming over your head).

  3. wanda said,

    April 30, 2023 @ 3:36 am

    I was only familiar with the use of "baculum" to mean "penis bone" so it was interesting to see the connection to "prokaryote" and "long piece of bread."

  4. Kate Bunting said,

    April 30, 2023 @ 2:01 pm

    A heraldic emblem associated with the town of Warwick, and the Earldom of Warwick, is the 'bear and ragged staff' (a bear on its hind legs holding a small tree with the branches lopped off). There used to be a pub in Warwick called the Bear and Baculus (apparently it closed in 1972); obviously referring to the same emblem.

  5. Taylor, Philip said,

    April 30, 2023 @ 2:15 pm

    Sadly the blazoning makes no mention of a baculus (or even of a a baculum), merely a "ragged staff argent" —

    On either side a bear supporting a ragged staff argent and gorged with a wreath of oak fructed proper

  6. Mike Grubb said,

    May 1, 2023 @ 8:52 am

    When I saw "small staff" as the translation of the Greek bakterion, I immediately thought of "staff infection." Alas… that fails on so many levels.

  7. Taylor, Philip said,

    May 1, 2023 @ 9:17 am

    Mike, all you needed to remember was that where Algol 68 had FI, the Greeks had Phi

  8. ParisFrenchLessons said,

    May 4, 2023 @ 4:47 am

    Thank you for this! As a native French speaker, I would tend to use "mener quelqu'un à la baguette" instead, but this is a matter of personal preference!

  9. David Scott Deden said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 11:35 pm

    In Malay, long slender counted item: batang.

  10. milu said,

    May 6, 2023 @ 12:17 pm

    Shepherds don't use a "baguette" in France French at least. Their stick is universally known as a "bâton".

    (source: am french)

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