A seeming absurdity

In my early teens I hadn’t yet studied Latin or any Romance language, but my two close friends and I were aware of the power of words; we read a lot, and sometimes we wrote short and usually humorous pieces. My friend Roy had in his house a type of large, one-volume reference book that was common in the middle of the 20th century: part dictionary, part thesaurus, part encyclopedia. It even had a rhyming dictionary in it, and one of the columns of rhyming words began, if I remember right, with ah and bah. Near the end of the column I found sang-froid, whose first word I mentally pronounced like the past tense of sing and whose second as if it were Freud. I was baffled, not so much because I had no idea what the term meant, because sang-froid (with my pronunciation) certainly didn’t rhyme with ah, bah, shah, and hurrah. Was this a misprint, a practical joke, or what? I had no idea, but I enjoyed the absurdity. In 10th grade I finally took French and learned how to pronounce sang-froid and what it meant. And later I could see the resemblance to the Spanish cognate sangre fría ‘cold blood.’ English uses French sang-froid with the figurative meanings ‘coolness or presence of mind, composure,’ especially when a person is under pressure or in danger.

©2010 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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