Flèche, flécher, fléchir
flesh, flay-shay, flay-SHEER. Click below to hear this.*
Arrow, mark with arrows, bend.
Another strange story of odd bedfellows!
Une flèche is an arrow. Forget about the curved and squiggled arrows you see on traffic signs. By definition, in French at least, une flèche is something that is straight and pointy. It comes from an old Frankish word that means the one who flees. That’s why we talk about “straight as an arrow.” if it’s going to “flee”, it had better be straight, or it will come back like a boomerang!
It makes sense, then, that flécher means to mark up with arrows, –> like this. <– Turn left, turn right, go straight. All that is very useful, and it is clear that the verb shares its root with the noun.
But what about fléchir? It means to bend (under pressure). It’s what your teenager hopes you will do when she tries to wear you down begging for a car. It’s what your knees do to you when you hear a piece of bad news. It’s what you do in yoga class.
So why is that related to une flèche? It isn’t! Fléchir comes from a completely different root: a Low Latin word meaning to bend. The Latin was flecticare, which led to flechier in Old French, and then became fléchir. It will look a lot more familiar to you if you think of flex, flexible, flexion (which is also spelled flection).
Can you flex your mind around that?
*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: