Pedantry - Moved to

Thursday, March 13, 2003
Pain grillé à la française?

Recently, the blogsphere has been torn by the controversy over the origin of "French toast." Is it the work of those hateful frogs, and thus rightfully rebaptised "Freedom Toast" by the US Congressional lunchroom monitor, or is it, as Joe Conason alleges and Atrios and Matt Yglesias repeat, the work of 18th century Albany innkeeper Joe French? There is even an extensive investigation of the philosophical implications of this key issue for Hilary Putnam's "twin earth" argument in analytical philosophy.

To me, this sounds like a job for a lexicologist.

So, as a legally certified if somewhat lapsed lexicologist, I decided to take the job on. According to extensive research conducted over lunch among two or three Walloon coworkers, I found each claimed that French toast is, in fact, an ancient Belgian recipe, renamed, like Vlaamse fritjes, after the French imperialist aggressor by ignorant anglos. One, in fact, went so far as to find a website discussing the religious and historical significance of pain perdu, or "lost bread" as the French call it.

Pain perdu - Recettes Brabançonnes et tradionnelles

Le lundi perdu, le noir lundi ou le lundi parjuré se fête le premier lundi qui suit l'Epiphanie.

La tradition s'enfonce dans la nuit des temps:
- Les rois mages auraient refusé de renseigner Hérode sur la localisation du Christ. Il reniaient de ce fait leur parole: le lundi parjuré
- Au 15 siècle les fonctionnaires prêtèrent serments de jour là, donc ils ne travaillaient pas, d'oú un jour de salaire perdu: le lundi perdu

Ce jour là nos grand'mères faisaient du "pain perdu".

Note that a "recette brabançonne" means a Belgian recipe. A search of the etymological dictionaries on hand tended to confirm this origin in Europe. Although I do not have a good etymological English dictionary within reach, a search in the Trésor de la Langue Française defines pain perdu as:

Dessert fait de tranches de pain que l'on fait tremper dans du lait sucré et de l'oeuf battu avant de le faire frire.

It cites the 19th century cooking reference La Cuisiniére de la Campagne et de la Ville, ou Nouvelle Cuisine Economique as its source. Now feeling I was getting somewhere, I moved on my American edition Larousse Gastronomique:

French Toast (PAIN PERDU)

A dessert consisting of slices of stale bread (or brioche or milk bread) soaked in milk, dipped in eggs beaten with sugar, then lightly fried in butter. French toast is usually served hot and crisp. It was formerly called pain crotté, pain à la romaine, or croutes dorées. In the south of France, it was traditionally eaten on feast days, particularly at Easter. Originally intended to use up crusts and leftover pieces of bread. French toast is usually made with milk bread. It may be accompanied by custard cream, jam or compote.

Now, were there a well attested American origin to French toast, I should certainly think my Larousse would mention it. Instead, I find a set of references to traditional French culinary practices. Furthermore, upon doing a search for pain crotté, I find that it is unanimously considered a Picardian tradition, and Picardy borders Belgium. Also, from the other side of the Atlantic, I find a number of references to pain perdu as New Orleans-style French Toast, suggesting that the English term "French toast" may in fact refer to the Louisiana French who prepared this recipe.

So, although my search could hardly be definitive without checking out the OED or the FEW (Oxford English Dictionary and Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch - the two most comprehensive etymological references for English and French), I find no support in the secondary sources for an American origin for French toast, and considerable support for an origin in contemporary Belgium or France.

This makes me feel like spewing chunks, and I wanted to share the feeling

Found via General J. C. Christian. The picture, mind you, can be purchased via Watson's Wildlife Gallery.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003
French as an official language

I dislike dissing other bloggers on my blog, unless they really deserve it through complete schmuckhood. This post on, while not quite descending into the truly asinine depths, does fall into my area of specialty, so there will be an exception. Let me reproduce the post in its entirety:

French is a minor international language, and it's time its international status reflected that. It's not even in the top 10 most widely spoken, and yet French is one of the official languages of the United Nations, UNESCO, Nato [now that's a real joke], the OECD and a host of other international organizations. Either we should simply recognize the fact that English is the official world language, or else international organizations should bring in languages such as Portuguese, so that France realizes it's a mid-sized European power with a culture that doesn't export.

Chinese (937,132,000)
Spanish (332,000,000)
English (322,000,000)
Bengali (189,000,000)
Hindi/Urdu (182,000,000)
Arabic (174,950,000)
Portuguese (170,000,000)
Russian (170,000,000)
Japanese (125,000,000)
German (98,000,000)
French (79,572,000)
[source Summer Institute for Linguistics]

Now, let us take a look at the several gross failures in this sort of thinking. Should an international organisation reflect the number of people who speak a language, or the number of nations? La Francophonie counts 47 member states plus Quebec and New Brunswick which have separate representatives from Canada and an additional 5 observers. The UN has 191 member states, so roughly a quarter of UN members are to some degree francophone states.

It's hard to get a comparable count for English, however, the Commonwealth has 54 members. If we add the US, Ireland, Hong Kong and the Bahamas - the most obvious anglophone omissions from the Commonwealth list, we get 58. That is not such a big difference, although I may have missed one or two.

The next biggest language block is the Spanish-speaking nations. 21 of them, by my count, plus the USA. After that comes Arabic at circa 20, then Portuguese with six countries by my count. It goes downhill from there.

NATO has three anglophone members (the USA, the UK and Canada) and four francophone ones (France, Belgium, Canada and Luxembourg) and is headquartered in a predominately francophone city. I don't know what Mr. Denton means by "now that's a real joke", but if he means French at NATO, it's no joke. It is a requirement for employment, and non-francophone civilian employees have two years to learn the language or they lose their jobs.

The OECD has 6 anglophone members (Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Canada and the US) and 5 francophone ones (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada and Switzerland.) The US isn't even a member of UNESCO, which is headquartered in Paris. As for these "other international organizations", America can't even be bothered to join many of them.

Part of the problem, I think, is mistaking Ethnologue's highly back-of-the-envelope estimates of first language French and English speakers with an estimate of how widely a language is spoken. French is still spoken quite widely. It is the language of state, education or interregional communication across a large part of Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean and it remains a widely taught and used second language in Europe and parts of Asia. I was just as well served in Cambodia and Laos in French as in English, sometimes better, and even in Vietnam I saw quite a lot of French in use.

Of course, it we count second language speakers, the situation gets much fuzzier, but French then moves quite a lot further up the scale, because it is still the second most widely taught foreign language in the world, behind only English and far ahead of any other language. This is a somewhat surprising conclusion for a language that "doesn't export."

The real issue, as usual, is money. The sum of the GDP's of the various francophone countries is likely to compare favourably to that of the German and Spanish speaking countries (although it might be closer for those two than I think), the Arabic speaking ones, the Hindi-Urdu speaking states, and certainly the Bengali and Russian speaking ones. French remains in the top few languages of the world in terms of cash position, and let's be honest, we all knew that was how things really worked. Taking into account its wide geographical and multi-national dispersion, its place as a very widely taught second language even in places where it has no official status and its position as a traditional language of intellectual endeavour, it certainly seems reasonable to think of it as a big deal among world languages.

Mr. Denton, however, shows little interest in the real politics of language. This is just another grasping effort to piss on the French by invoking a non-sequitur, while simultaneously demanding that the rest of world change to accomodate an ignorance of languages largely indigenous to Americans.

Update: According to the Académie française, there are roughly 200 million people able to speak functional French.

La francophonie couvre aujourd'hui un ensemble de près de soixante pays, peuplés d'environ 500 millions d'habitants.

Parmi ces pays, certains sont entièrement de langue française, d'autres ne l'utilisent que partiellement, pour d'autres elle ne représente qu'une langue étrangère maîtrisée par une partie plus ou moins grande de la population.

Si l'on considère le nombre de personnes pouvant réellement s'exprimer en français, le chiffre doit être ramené à un niveau de l'ordre de 200 millions de personnes.

From La francophonie at the Académie française website.

Rebuilding Iraq May Cost U.S. $20 Billion a Year

As part of our continuing series on the price of war, I refer you, dear reader, to the above linked Reuters article. At $20 billion annually, this comes to $277.78 per American taxpaying household. But wait! There's more. That $20 billion figure involves some assumptions about what reconstruction will entail. The key paragraphs:

[This Council on Foreign Relations paper] estimated these at some $20 billion per year, assuming the deployment of post-war stabilization force of 75,000 troops at a cost of $16.8 billion, $2.5 billion for reconstruction and $500 million for humanitarian assistance in the first year.

"If the troop requirements are much larger than 75,000 -- a genuine possibility -- the funding requirement would (be) much greater," it said, noting estimates of over 200,000 troops.

The group said the United States should make clear it stood ready to make "substantial" contributions for humanitarian aid and reconstruction, saying disruptions to Iraqi oil revenues could require "considerably higher" humanitarian aid.

Now, there is a lot to worry about in this extract. First of all, this paper assumes that the US plans to spend almost seven times as much on occupying Iraq as reconstructing it. $16.8 billion is $700 annually per Iraqi, to support a 75,000 man US occupation force, or one US soldier per 320 Iraqis. Humanitarian aid, in contrast, will amount to $20.83 per Iraqi per year, and reconstruction aid to $104.17. One would think the benefits of extending more aid and assistance - especially early on - would reduce the cost of occupation significantly, at least on the long run. $20 is a lot more money to an Iraqi than to an American to be sure, but will it really feed someone? This war will surely disrupt a large chunk of the Iraqi economy. just how many people are going to need humanitarian assistance?

Then, we come to the less pleasant caveats, and it gives us a disturbing picture of the assumptions that underlie them. First of all, one soldier per 320 Iraqis isn't that many. Those kinds of numbers may have worked in Bosnia, where local police were able to enforce basic law and order once the chaos had receeded, but is the US ever going to trust local Iraqi cops enough to let them operate freely? Does anyone in Washngton know how little gun control Iraq has now? One uniform per 320 angry rifle-toting locals is a bit hard to swallow.

Besides, the US Army is not well known for its peacekeeping skills or its vast numbers of fluent Arabic-speaking troops. Thinking of a long term 200,000 man occupation is a lot more realistic, making the ratio one American per 120 Iraqis. But, at 200,000 men Iraq will absorb a lot of manpower. I have not been able to track down numbers for the size of the US military, but it's hard to see how such an occupation could fail to take a big bite out of the active combat-ready part of the Army and Marine Corps.

Second, there is the assumption that Iraqis can largely support themselves on oil revenue. What do you think are the odds that the occupation government is going to pass the full world market value of oil on to Iraqi public services? What are the odds that between kleptocrats in the oil business and "economic friction" in Iraq, a lot of that money is going to disappear?

Lastly, I take some umbrage with this bit: "The group said the United States should make clear it stood ready to make "substantial" contributions for humanitarian aid and reconstruction." Bloody hell! You're going to trash their country, destroy their economy, and put soldiers on their streets. "Substantial" my ass! You break it, you fix it. The only meagre justice that might come out of this war at all is if the US plans to make an open ended commitment to rebuilding Iraq as a better country than it was before. This shouldn't even have to be said.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003
Thanks to Bush, I may have hit the jackpot

It's not exactly news that Paul Krugman has problems with the Bush administration. But, he says outright some things that he hasn't before in today's NYT:

How will the train wreck play itself out? Maybe a future administration will use butterfly ballots to disenfranchise retirees, making it possible to slash Social Security and Medicare. Or maybe a repentant Rush Limbaugh will lead the drive to raise taxes on the rich. But my prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt.

This touches something of a soft spot in my politics. Krugman's train wreck will probably leave me better off than any reasonable, sensible economic policy would.

You see, I'm in debt. When I left the states, I still had a small fortune in computer stocks. Before long, I didn't. Plans predicated on having money lead to debt when the money disappears. Both my wife and I have good work now and we are not in desperate financial straights, but it was looking pretty bad for a while.

What's important in this is that I'm in hock to US banks, in US dollars and our incomes are in Euros. Every day that the dollar goes down is a day that I'm less in debt without having to pay a dime. My banks have to absorb the loss, not me, and those banks pass those losses onto their other customers - those residing in the US - in the form of higher interest rates.

USD vs EUR exchange rates for the last 12 months

In short, the unemployed, mortgaged, up to their noses in credit card debt American middle class is paying for my three month trek through Asia to practice Chinese and my year of unemployment in graduate school, and I am not even paying American taxes to help them.

This is called socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor. It isn't a situation I would advocate. It's certainly not fair. I'm happy to owe less money because of something I have no personal control over whatsoever, but my conscience is clear only because I have absolutely no personal control over it. I couldn't have voted for Bush, and even if I could have voted, I certainly wouldn't have voted for him.

But, the next time you run into a Bush supporter, thank them for me for subsidising my life. Remind them that, thanks to Dubya and his damn-foolishness, every time they make a mortgage payment or send money to their credit card, there is a liberal, non-American computer programmer who's getting to see the world on their money.

Monday, March 10, 2003
Hi, folks. I know I said I was taking the weekend off. It's Monday and I have been sick as a dog, so concentrating on stuff has been hard. I will respond to the comments - hopefully tomorrow.

In the mean time, I just saw the last episode of Farscape on the Beeb. I gather those of you in the States who get it on SciFi are only on episode 20. If you're a fan of the show, you are going to hate the ending. I want to throw something at my TV, I hate the ending that much.

Update: I'm back. I responded in the EP thread. I have something else I'm putting together to post that I hope will be interesting. With some luck, I'll be able to get it up later tonight.