On a commencé le compte à rebours.

On a commencé le compte à rebours.

aw nah kuh-mah-sayl kaw tahr-BOOR. Click below to hear this.*

They’ve started the countdown.

Launching a rocket or waiting for Santa, knowing how to count backwards is a critical skill. You’ve probably got the “counting” part mastered (maybe even in French!), but I’ll bet there are things you didn’t know about the “backwards” part (especially in French).

For instance: where did this odd word à rebours come from?

Glad you asked! Once again, we get to make an excursion to an ancient time. In kitchen Latin, reburrus referred to something with its hair, or fur, sticking up. The image of a hedgehog comes to mind, or a kid with a cowlick.

By the 12th century, the word had crept into Old French, as a reburs. By that time, reburrus had gotten mixed up with another word, reversus, and had morphed into rebursus.

By modern times, à rebours had come to refer to all sorts of things that stick up (a hairy fabric, say) as well as all sorts of backwards actions: for example, petting your dog the wrong way, rebelling against societal norms, or acting in an unexpected way.

And then, about 1960, le compte à rebours came into being. It’s not as if no one had ever counted backwards before–I remember doing it when I was in grade school–but it became a phenomenon, a thing with a life of its own. Sending a rocket off into space was an event of such magnitude that it called for its own hallmark.

Besides, counting the wrong way is really the only right way for a launch. Which random number would you choose for the moment of launch? 50? 137? 42? The only number with enough dignity and finality for that instant is zero. And you begin the countdown at the number of checkpoints to be passed, or the number of minutes or seconds remaining. Each number in the compte à rebours has a significance. It has weight. It has a kind of pure truth in its reversal of everyday life.

*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 a commencé le compte à rebours.

  1. What is “kitchen Latin”, and where do you find all this interesting history of the evolution of words? On another subject, it was interesting yesterday to hear all three of “your” French voices pronouncing the same words. Hearing your own slowed-down version gave me some hope of getting it right myself!

  2. Nous pouvons donc dire que le compte à rebours en ce qui concerne l’élimination des mines a effectivement commencé.

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