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10 September 2011

French tidbits

            I’ve been reading Graham Robb’s Parisians: an adventure history of Paris with unexpected delight.  The research is meticulous, yet the prose is light and quick.  The anecdotes are fascinating: Napoleon’s youthful encounter with a prostitute before his rise to power, Marie Antoinette’s failed escape due to want of a good map, and so on.  Great reading.

            From the book I learned that Paris once had a street named Rue d’Enfer, the road of hell.  In 1774, a great chasm suddenly opened up forming a sinkhole.  Several houses on the Rue d’Enfer were swallowed up by the earth.  This event lead architectural genius Charles-Axel Guillaumot to discover that most of the city was in peril due to ancient mining tunnels snaking through the ground below houses, churches, and taverns alike.  Half the city was propped up on unstable piles of quarried stones.  He rebuilt the Parisian underground, and the name of the street was changed.

            While it is understandable that people at the time believed the road was named prophetically, the etymology of the street name was mysterious.  Today, the source is considered unknown, but etymologists of the period were somewhat more inventive, in all senses of the word:

“in the days of the Romans, the Rue St. Jacques was the Via Superior, while this street, being the lower of the two, was the Via Inferior or Infera.  And so it was that, by corruption and contraction, it assumed the name ENFER.”
(Hurtaut and Magny, Dictionnaire historique de la ville de Paris et de ses environs.  Paris, 1779.)

I prefer the old to the new.  Happy reading.

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