In New York, where I grew up, we called a street that didn’t lead anywhere a dead end. My path in life did not dead-end in New York but eventually led me to Texas, where what I knew as a bag is often called a sack and where a dead end is known as a cul-de-sac. The expression is French, and we can translate it alliteratively as ‘butt of [a] bag,’ with a street being conceived as the bag and the blocked end of said street being metaphorically its butt. Spanish speakers will recognize French cul (whose l isn’t pronounced in French but is in English) as the cognate of culo, a word that some might see as mighty naughty but others as only mildly naughty, on the order of English butt.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. TBM
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 05:56:59

    I grew up on a cul-de-sac in southern California.


  2. KatiesCameraBlog
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 08:30:59

    Cul-de-sac is so much better than dead end. More positive. Butt. 🙂


  3. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 08:58:56

    But dead end is positively still alive in New York. If you went there and said cul-de-sac you’d probably be the butt of plenty of jokes.


  4. Rachel
    Jan 11, 2012 @ 14:49:30

    It’s so interesting how our languages have evolved together. Living in AZ I’ve seen first hand the impact that english has had on spanish words and vice versa. Thanks for sharing!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 11, 2012 @ 15:31:03

      I’m pleased you find the interrelationship as interesting as I do, Rachel. As you said, living in Arizona gives you a first-hand look at the interaction between Spanish and English, just as living in Texas does. Here, for example, a lot of Spanish speakers say troca for truck, an obvious adaptation of the English word.


  5. shoreacres
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 20:58:45

    I have a friend whose blog is titled “The Cul-de-Sac Chronicles”. I’m running over there right now with this information!

    I’m wondering: we have both dead ends and cul-de-sacs here in League City. The distinction seems to be socio-economic, which, given the translation, is just slightly amusing.

    In Cajun country, the standard Texas crappie (P. annularis, the white crappie) is known as sac-au-lait, or “bag-of-milk”. How about that?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 16, 2012 @ 21:22:07

      If your friend has anything amusing to say about the tidings you bring her, please let us know.

      I guess Austin just isn’t in your League, because we have only cul-de-sacs. Seems like your town’s dead end/cul-de-sac distinction is a dissertation waiting to be written by some enterprising student.

      No seafarer, I confess I’ve never heard of a Texas crappie, but the French name strikes me as more descriptive and less offensive. (You know the old adage that everything sounds better in French.) In the Philippines they eat Chanos chanos, whose English name is milkfish.


      • shoreacres
        Jan 17, 2012 @ 20:17:46

        Here you go. Everything you’ll ever need to know. And that would be kraw-pee. Not the other pronunciation.

        As it turns out, my friend knew the meaning of cul-de-sac, but used the phrase anyway because it alliterated so nicely with “chronicles”. I still think the best sign ever is one that also came out of the Louisiana trip, down in Butte LaRose: “Cul-de-Sac-au-Lait”.


      • Steve Schwartzman
        Jan 17, 2012 @ 21:32:07

        Now I’m much better versed on the crappie. The American Heritage Dictionary gives the origin of the word as Canadian French crapet, but I’ve been unable to find out where that came from.

        Your great sign for “Cul-de-Sac-au-Lait” and your friend’s alliteration remind me of the French verb allaiter, which is based on lait and means ‘to suckle.’


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