C’est au premier étage.

C’est au premier étage.

say oh pruh-meeYAY ray-TAHZH. Click below to hear this.

It’s on the first floor.

Or is it?

You know how the buttons in an American elevator say G, 2, 3, 4 and so on? G is for “ground floor”. That’s 1.

Not European elevators. French and Belgian ones say RC, 1, 2, 3, and so on. RC is le rez-de-chaussée, which means street level. It’s like floor 0. So when you’re talking with French speakers and they tell you C’est au premier étage, you’ll need to ask, A l’americaine ou à l’européenne? (Pronounce ah lah-may-ree-KEN noo ah luh-ro-pay-ENN? American or European style? )

But that’s not the only excitement here. In English, you count the floors or the stories of a building. Floor is intuitive; it’s what we stand on. What if we paid more attention to the ceilings? After all, they are what keeps the floor above from crashing down on us. The English word ceiling comes from a string of Latin and Middle English words meaning to cut or to carve. How did that come about? Probably because of the exposed wooden beams that typified ceilings from very early times, and right up to the present in rustic construction.

I can hear you objecting that this is a blog about French, not English. But the French word for ceiling is le plafond, which actually means flat bottom (plat fond). So le plafond is the flat surface that you apply to those exposed beams, to make everything look more elegant.

As for those stories? More Latin and Old English. The original meaning was picture. Yup, that’s right, picture! How did that happen? It probably referred to the medieval custom of using stained glass to tell a tale. Each room would have a different story to tell.

None of this plurality of terms in French. It’s un étage, pure and simple, but the origins of the word are no less interesting. From the Latin stare, to be standing, came Old French ester, to stand or remain. (Some of the forms of être, to be, were also “swiped” from stare.) From ester, somewhere between about 1100 and 1150, arose estage, a situation, sojourn, or dwelling place. Can you see how we got from there to the modern meaning of étage?

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4 responses to “C’est au premier étage.

  1. You might also have pointed out that “ceiling” must be related to the French “ciel”. About the derivations I have no clue.

    • Thank you, Jessica! I was going to say so, but then my dictionary led me in another direction. I should have checked further: here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary says (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=ceiling):

      mid-14c., celynge, “paneling, any interior surface of a building,” noun formed (with -ing) from M.E. borrowing of M.Fr. verb celer “to conceal, cover with paneling” (12c.), from L. celare (see cell); probably influenced by L. cælum “heaven, sky” (see celestial). The meaning “top surface of a room” is attested by 1530s.

      Celer, of course, is French for “to conceal”. So we have both the Latin and the French pointing to “ceiling”. I love etymology!

  2. All this reminds me of our first trip to France. Remember? We arrived at the airport where you weren”t, and who knew where our luggage was? We finally met. You got on the phone with a torrent of French, and our bags were at our hotel right after dinner. In school I’d learned that floor one was up one flight, but the fourth seemed awfully high.

    (Incidentally, where I live we have a G,1,2,3 situation.)

  3. How could I forget? Your first trip, and we wanted the arrangements to be perfect, but between us and the airline, you had a pretty rough welcome to France. I trust that the rest of your memories of that trip are pleasanter! :-)

    I had been thinking of the bottom floor where you live as a basement, but you have a walkout by the woodshop, so it must qualify as the ground floor!

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