On a déclaré le couvre-feu.

On a déclaré le couvre-feu.

aw nah day-klaa-rail coo-vruh-FUH. Click below to hear this.

A curfew was declared.

Did you know that curfew is actually a French word? Or at least it was, once upon a time.

And once upon a time–we’re talking medieval Europe–everyone’s home was heated by fire. There was no other option. The hearth was the center of the home: cooking, heating, drying off, boiling water for that once-a-year bath, all took place by the hearth, le foyer in French. It’s the place where the fire (le feu) is. No wonder the closest word for home in French is le foyer.

But as important as it was to keep the fire burning during the day, it was critical to bank the fires (heap ashes over the embers, to smother the flames) at night. Why? Because the majority of houses were built of wood and other highly flammable substances, and roofs were commonly thatched. A fire that broke out at night, when most people were asleep, was a disaster: flames leaping from roof to roof, timbers smoldering for hours and crashing down on families, whole towns crumbling into ashes.

So the night watchman played an essential public safety role: calling le couvre-feu (cover the fires) as the dark fell, and watching for fires and nefarious activity during the long nighttime hours. For anyone out after dark could surely be up to no good! It was assumed that honest people work all day and sleep at night….

Of course, the deep darkness of a town without fires burning in the night also made it much more difficult for an enemy to creep up and attack. Hence the application of the English derivation of the word couvre-feu, curfew, to wartime measures. We no longer need to bank our fires at night, but in times of danger we conceal light sources, send everyone indoors, and remain alert to suspicious activity. Thus a word that appeared as early as the 11th century in France reveals its historical and cultural origins even as it is adapted to modern needs.

Note that on a déclaré is equivalent to was declared. Who is on? It means someone, “they”, one–any unspecified person or group of people. In this case, it is “the authorities.”

And for more information on words like le couvre-feu, see my post from March 26. The plural in this case is des couvre-feux, because feu has an irregular plural.

Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

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