Un point à temps en vaut cent.
uh pwaa ah tah ah voh sah. Click below to hear this.*
A stitch in time saves nine.
Last day of vacation! This morning at breakfast, my sister and I were reminiscing about our grandmother’s bookshelves, and my brother-in-law suddenly said, “Counterpane.” He was remembering the Robert Louis Stevenson poem where the little boy, sick in bed, was marching his toy soldiers up and down the counterpane. What on earth is a counterpane, anyway?
So of course we had to look it up, and learned that it is a bedspread, which in French is called un dessus-de-lit, or top-of-bed, or un couvre-pieds, feet-cover. Then how did a counterpane get its odd name? It sounds like a glass window set into a work surface.
Nope. The pane part has nothing to do with glass. It’s from the Latin pannus, meaning a strip or patch of cloth, which became pan in more modern French. Does that begin to sound familiar?
An older French word for this thing is une contrepointe, which is also a quilt, and not to be confused with le contrepoint, which is musical counterpoint.
And that contrepointe became corrupted to courtepointe, the modern word that describes quilting, possibly because courte means short and un point is a stitch.
And that brings us to Un point à temps en vaut cent. in English, A stitch in time saves nine, which sounds euphonious because of the false rhyme. In French, the number of stitches changes all the way from nine to 100, in order to maintain the rhyme (temps-cent).
There now, Bruce, aren’t you sorry you asked?
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: