On lui a sonné les cloches.

On lui a sonné les cloches.

aw lwee ah suh-nay lay KLUSH. Click below to hear this.*

He was strongly reprimanded.

Or, more colorfully, They rang his bells. Which is what it might feel like, if you get roundly scolded: Your ears are ringing, aren’t they?

Interestingly, if you get punched, English-speakers may say you got clocked. What do clocks have to do with all this?

Here’s where the fun comes in. The French word for bell is une cloche, thought to originate with an Irish Celtic word clocca that found its way into Middle Latin. From there, it wandered through other developing European languages in various forms.

In northern French, it settled into a form usually spelled cloque (or cloke), before the accent of central France began to dominate and the word became cloche. You can read more about the Picardy accent here.

But that still doesn’t explain how we got from bells to clocks. In the Middle Ages (and well beyond, in the countryside), the passage of time was announced to the village by the ringing of bells, declaring prayer times throughout the day. That’s what Frère Jacques is about:

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous, dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines,
Din, din, don, din, din, don.

In the English version, the bells are already ringing. But in the original French, it’s Brother James (not John!) who is supposed to be ringing the bells for morning prayers!

Is it any surprise that la cloche should morph into clock? The invention of mechanized clocks, which automatically ring a bell on the hour, happened early on. They existed in the Middle Ages, some very elaborate. And of course, they would be housed with les cloches in le clocher, translated into English as both belltower and clocktower. There’s a lovely photo of the clock at Salisbury Cathedral at this link.

*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:



2 responses to “On lui a sonné les cloches.

  1. la soeur ainee

    Interesting story! Thanks for explaining “Frere Jacques,” also, the oversleeping monk.

  2. Dad and I saw that clock at Salisbury Cathedral. Believe it or not, I thought it was the mechanism for a clock in the tower! Thanks for enlightening me after all these years of ignorance.

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