Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reflections on the origins of the word Boulangerie

If one were to single out one item of food that epitomises the French way of life, the baguette would undoutedely be a contender. The French love freshly baked bread, and there is hardly a village or street in all of France which does not have a Boulangerie, where baguettes are lovingly prepared as well as various delicious cakes and pastries. That is why one will not find a French equivalent of the Anglophone expression ‘ the greatest invention since sliced bread’. Industrially packaged sliced pans never really took off in the land of haute cuisine
, where the pleasure derived from good food bears an importance of almost religious intensity.
Considering its centrality to French life, one would think that the word boulangerie would have an obvious origin in the French language, something self-evident and logical ; but, surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Most French etymological dictionaries derive the word from medieval Latin, citing the obscure word bulangarius as a possible source. But this doesn’t explain much about the literal meaning of the word. Seeing as the Latin word for bread is panis, from which we have derivations in all the Romance languages, the origin of this quintessentially French word still remains obscure. The Latin for boulangerie is infact pistrinum. French philologists contend thqt boulangerie is derived from the latin bulla, but this word, although containing the notion of something round, was only used to denote the seal of a letter, as in a papal bull. But there is no evidence of this word being used in the sense of kneeding dough to make bread. This mystery becomes more complex when one examines equivalent words in the other Latinate languages. Italian has fornajo and panateria, while Spanish gives us the obvious panaderia. So where does this puzzling word boulangerie come from ? It should contain a meaning pertaining to the baking or kneading of bread. One can safely conjecture that the medieval bulangarius is a mere latinisation of a pre-existing word, peculiar to the province of Roman Gaul.

Flicking through my Gaelic etymology dictionary by Charles Mackay recently, I stumbled on a possible solution to this problem. Mackay, equally puzzled by this word, derives it from the Gaelic builin meaning a loaf and anas, a dainty, a cake, a pastry. However, the former word rather disconcertingly means anus according to O Donaill’s Irish dictionary ! But assuming that it is an old word in Scots Gaelic, the language most familiar to the author, I have to admit the ingenious cogency of his interpretation. The Irish word denoting striking, beating or kneading is bualadh, whence builin meaning kneaded dough or bread. Putting these two words together we have bualanas, which is startlingly close to boulangerie. But if boulangerie is indeed cognate with the Irish word for loaf, perhaps we can only cite eight hundred years of British colonisation for the absence of a corresponding appreciation of bread and confectionary in Irish culture.
If one were to accept this etymology, one would have to conclude that boulangerie is an old Gaulish word which lived on in the superimposed latinate language of French.

If we contemplate the striking similarities between Gaulish and Gaelic words, the hypothesis becomes all the more convincing. It also raises questions about the ability of French philologists to find suitable derivations of non-latinate words, being for the most part ignorant of our noble Gaelic. I am reminded of the famous declaration of Dr.Murray, late professor of Oriental languages in the University of Edinburgh, who said " Without a considerable knowledge of Gaelic, no person can make any proficiency whatever in philology " The more I dig into this linguistic soil, the more convinced I am of the ineluctable veracity of this assertion

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