Jul 5th 2008

When a frog Is not a frog

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The main French defense manufacturer called a group of experts and some economic journalists together a few years ago to unveil a new military helicopter. They wanted us to choose a name for it and I thought I had the perfect one: "The Frog". I argued my case as best I could after the long lunch they provided.

What could be more suitable for a French machine that hops from pad to pad? Other French helicopters have equally fanciful names -- Alouette, Elephant Joyeux, Dolphin and Frelon (bumblebee).

But the French aerospace executives suspected I was making fun of them as "Frogs", a nickname they disliked, so my idea didn't fly. They had seen British tabloids use the term against them one time too many. In the end, they called the helicopter "Squirrel", even less complimentary, I thought.

What's wrong with being called a frog? It is no worse than being a German "kraut" or an Italian "Eye-tie". If you believe the experts at the Oxford English Dictionary, it dates only from 1873 but admittedly it is defined as "a term of contempt for a Frenchman, from their reputed habit of eating frogs."

I would have said "term of affection" (which it can also be) but it is true that they eat frogs' legs -- roughly 60,000 actual pairs of legs a year -- sourced mainly from Asia and East Europe. Finer French restaurants carry them on their menus occasionally.

I find the dictionary's definition unconvincing in another way, however. The French are not alone in their eating habits. The Chinese and other Asian countries consider frogs' legs a delicacy yet we don't call them "froggies". Even English epicures have been known to be pro-frog. Victorian essayist Charles Lamb was an early fancier. "I have been in France and I have eaten frogs," he wrote. "The nicest little rabbity things you ever tasted."

Recently I opted for fried frogs' legs as an appetizer at an upmarket restaurant in my adopted home town Bordeaux. I found them more chickeny than rabbity and a lot more trouble to eat than they were worth. You can't get a strip of meat off those tiny bones without surgical tools, and they make such a mess they are served with a finger-bowl.

Surely the French could not be nicknamed for this little dish.

Attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery, I turned to linguistic history and discovered the writings of 19th century eccentric polymath Jean-Pierre Brisset, who was as close to a French frog as you can get. He believed humans were descended from frogs and he decided they were saying "coac-coac". This is where the story goes off the rails. Brisset tried to engage them in conversation and thought he heard "Quoi, quoi?", French for "What, what?"

"One day," he wrote, "we were observing these pretty little animals, repeating their cry, 'coac', when one of them responded, its eyes sparkling, by two or three 'coacs'. It was clear to us that he was asking us, "What are you saying?" Brisset's retort to the frog was not recorded. They are still crying "Coac coac?" all over the French countryside.

This theory assumes that the frog was speaking French, a satisfying discovery for Brisset, and convenient for his chauvinistic enquiries into the origin of human language.

This theory falls to pieces, however, when comparing other renderings of the frog's croak: In Russian, the frog says "kva kva", in Japanese "kerokero", in Korean gae-gool-gae-gool", in Thai "ob ob", in Turkish "vrak vrak", in Cajun French "ouaouaron", and in Argentine Spanish, simply "burp".

The Greek dramatist Aristophanes captured it best of all: "Brekekekex brekekekex koax koax" in "The Frogs".

As far as I know, none of these expressions means "What?" Worse, "coac" is pronounced "quack" in French, raising all sorts of questions about animal language and what frogs and ducks might be saying behind our backs.

Theories on how the French got stuck with their nickname range far and wide, and none of them are particularly nasty. Frankish King Clovis of the fifth and sixth centuries chose bees and frogs to decorate royal garb. If that didn't trigger the name, perhaps it came from the 17th century when Paris was surrounded by swampland and the Parisians were known to other French people as frogs.

My personal favorite concerns English Queen Elizabeth I, a known frog-lover, who wrote letters to a childhood sweetheart, later an ambassador to France, whom she addressed "Dearest Frog". Now who can call that contemptuous? For its time, it was nothing less than a term of endearment.

Every once in a while I see a Squirrel helicopter in the sky around Europe and I think, "You missed your chance - you could have been a frog but you're just a common squirrel."

If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com. Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "As it is, Germany has made strides in getting off coal. Coal provided half of power production in 2000, and is now down to about a little over a quarter. And Germany has done more to put in renewables, with its “Energiewende” or Energy Switch, than any other large industrialized nation. The new Social Democratic government, which is in coalition with the Greens, plans to put enormous amounts of new renewables in every year until 2030, projecting that by that date, 80 percent of Germany’s power will come from renewables."
Jan 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "The fear is that Moscow is backing itself into a diplomatic corner where the use of force is its only way to remain credible." ----- "The Ukrainian population has also been mobilizing in support of the troops since the seizure of Crimea and the war in Donbas. And according to a poll taken in December 2021 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 58% of Ukrainian men and almost 13% of women declared that they are ready to take up arms. A further 17% and 25% more said they would resist through other means. In what would be a classic case of asymmetrical warfare, resistance from Ukraine’s population could therefore prove a serious thorn in Moscow’s side."
Jan 12th 2022
EXTRACTS: "While at the time of writing, the outcome of Djokovic’s visa troubles was uncertain, the double standard of rules raises a much bigger question about the philosophy of law: can the application of a rule be so unfair that we have no valid reason to follow it?" ------ "......a rule that doesn’t treat like cases alike can’t be a law at all. This is because a key requirement of a legal system is that it needs to be stable, which means that people need to know what the law is and when it applies. If a rule doesn’t treat everyone equally, then it does the opposite and increases doubt and uncertainty about what the law even is. And if enough rules exist that create uncertainty about what the law is and when it applies, the system will collapse. A rule that undermines a legal system in this way can’t really be law at all, and legal officials shouldn’t create or uphold them."
Jan 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranking tennis player, has just been granted a medical exemption to take part in the Australian Open. Djokovic, who has won the event nine times (one more victory would give him a record-breaking 21 major titles), refused to show proof of vaccination, which is required to enter Australia. “I will not reveal my status whether I have been vaccinated or not,” he told Blic, a Serbian daily, calling it “a private matter and an inappropriate inquiry.” The family of Dale Weeks, who died last month at the age of 78, would disagree. Weeks was a patient at a small hospital in rural Iowa, being treated for sepsis. The hospital sought to transfer him to a larger hospital where he could have surgery, but a surge in COVID-19 patients, almost all of them unvaccinated, meant that there were no spare beds. It took 15 days for Weeks to obtain a transfer, and by then, it was too late."
Jan 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "The protests that erupted across Kazakhstan on January 2 quickly turned into riots in all of the country’s major cities. What do the protesters want, and what will be the outcome of the country’s most severe civil unrest since independence in 1991? "
Jan 7th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....one wonders how Chinese President Xi Jinping views Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan, which shares a nearly 1,800-kilometer (1,120-mile) border with China, especially in light of Putin’s earlier comments diminishing the history of Kazakhstan’s independent statehood. (He has shown similar contempt for the independence of Belarus, the Baltic states, and Ukraine.)"
Jan 7th 2022
EXTRACT: "The problem with history as propaganda is not that it makes people feel good or bad, but that it creates perpetual enemies – and thus the perpetual risk of wars."
Jan 5th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a scenario in which Trump (or one of his allies) is designated president by the House of Representatives after the 2024 election probably belongs in the realm of political-thriller fiction.  Now consider the unlikely event that Trump were nominated and won a clear Electoral College or popular-vote majority in 2024. Rather than establish the white-nationalist dictatorship of progressive nightmares, an elderly second-term Trump would most likely be an even more ineffectual figurehead in a party dominated by conventional Republicans than he was in his first four years. If Italian democracy could survive three terms of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, American democracy can survive two terms of Trump. None of this is to suggest that American democracy is not under threat. Populist demagogues like Trump are symptoms of a disease in the body politic. The real threat to American democracy is the disconnect between what the bipartisan US political establishment promises and what it delivers. This problem predates Trump by decades and helps to explain his rise. "
Jan 4th 2022
EXTRACT: "This month, the world’s major central banks shifted gears and announced plans to tighten monetary policy. But there was one notable exception: the European Central Bank, which says it does not intend to raise interest rates in 2022, even though it is well aware of today’s inflation risks." ----- "Does this mean that the ECB is “soft on inflation,” occupying a dovish outlier position among the world’s major central banks? Is Germany’s bestselling tabloid, Bild, justified in bestowing on ECB President Christine Lagarde the mocking sobriquet “Madame Inflation”? No and no.
Dec 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "By the grim metric of fatalities in the first 10 years of a dictator’s rule, Kim Jong Un has yet to match the records set by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, or father, Kim Jong Il – the two tyrants who reigned by terror in North Korea before him. For now, the number of people Kim Jong Un has personally ordered killed – such as his uncle in 2013 and half-brother in 2017 – is likely to number in the hundreds." ---- "Concrete numbers of how many have died from starvation and malnourishment-related conditions such as diarrhea and pneumonia under Kim are difficult to come by. But as a scholar of Korean history, I believe the young dictator – who turns 38 next January – has the capacity to surpass even the ghastly death tolls of his two familial predecessors."
Dec 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But have enough Conservative backbenchers reached the conclusion that Johnson should be removed as party leader? There is a historical precedent which throws light on the present situation. This was when Margaret Thatcher was sacked as leader of her party – and consequently lost her job as prime minister – in 1990. She had a loyal following in the party and had won three elections in a row, but even that couldn’t save her when polling showed that the Conservatives were heading for a serious defeat under her leadership. ---- "That said, if Thatcher’s experience is anything to go by, at present the Conservatives are not going to sack Johnson. It took 18 months of seriously deteriorating polling for a revolt over Thatcher’s leadership to finally succeed – and she almost survived the leadership challenge. The present hope among Conservative backbenchers will be that the party can recover next year."
Dec 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although Johnson has a well-deserved reputation for maintaining an arm’s-length relationship with the truth, many voters seem to have priced this in to how they perceive him. Moreover, Conservative Party insiders, and those who previously worked with Johnson in journalism (his career before politics), have always known that he was unlikely to follow any rules that did not suit him. This rather large personal failing was apparent even in his boyhood, as a remarkably prescient school report by his Eton College housemaster noted. “I think,” Johnson’s teacher wrote, “he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” "
Dec 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "This puts US Democrats in a difficult position. What is a political party to do when the other main party has been taken over by self-appointed holy warriors? To treat them as a loyal opposition worthy of engagement in a spirit of compromise and respect becomes almost impossible. Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, and Joe Biden have sometimes been criticized by their own supporters for not fighting dirty and giving Republican fanatics a dose of their own foul medicine.  That would be a mistake. All legal means should be used to stop extremists from wrecking democratic institutions, but those institutions won’t survive if all parties turn politics into a matter of life and death. In a quasi-religious war, the far right will almost certainly win; they have more fanatics and, in the US, many more guns."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "In contrast to the index for consumer goods, which measures only the prices of final products, industrial producer prices capture all intermediate stages of production. They therefore have a certain prognostic significance for consumer prices, even though the final products won’t show such extreme spikes. ----- These new inflation figures are so extreme that the ECB’s position looks like willful denial. Germany is currently experiencing the strongest inflation in a lifetime. And the situation is not much better in other European countries. In September, France reported an 11.6% annual increase in industrial producer prices, and that figure stood at 15.6% in Italy, 18.1% in Finland, 21.4% in the Netherlands, and 23.6% in Spain."
Nov 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "So it could well be that, despite the faster spread of the infection, its ultimate health, social and economic impact proves negligible. We simply do not know at this point. But detecting more uncertainty than before, financial markets have reacted with panic. For example, the S&P500 tumbled 2.3% on Friday November 26 only to rise 1.1% on Monday November 29. Most markets gave up between 2% and 4%, which is a pretty substantial one-day fall."
Nov 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Momentous changes are casting a long shadow on China. The country’s political system will soon undergo a profound reform, pending final approval (a quasi-formality) at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party chairman and the “navigator” of the country, has decided on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership. Xi is leading China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and back toward a system of absolute rule by one person without term limits, as under Mao Zedong."
Nov 25th 2021
EXTRACTS: "”The biggest disappointment in Glasgow was the last-minute watering down of the proposed (and widely supported) agreement to “phase out” the use of coal in energy production. With India providing political cover for China in vetoing this language, the final conference proposal was to “phase down” coal”. ---- “China accounts for more than half of the world’s coal consumption, and has the largest amount of coal-fired generating capacity under construction. Pressed about why his country would not do more in Glasgow to help save the planet, China’s chief negotiator pointed to the commitments in the Communist Party of China’s current Five-Year Plan. So, our future now depends on the CPC’s program. The tragedy for the world is that the Party cannot be phased down, much less phased out, despite the fact that it is a huge threat to the future of all of us.” ------ “To save the planet, robust democratic leadership must be phased up – not phased down, let alone phased out. Rather than merely keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best, we should start by calling out the appalling behavior of dictatorships such as China and Russia.”
Nov 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The transitory inflation debate in the United States is over. The upsurge in US inflation has turned into something far worse than the Federal Reserve expected. Perpetually optimistic financial markets are taking this largely in stride. The Fed is widely presumed to have both the wisdom and the firepower to keep underlying inflation in check. That remains to be seen."
Nov 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "S&P projects that companies are planning to install 44 gigawatts of new solar in 2022. The year 2020, despite the onset of the pandemic, saw a record-breaking 19 gigawatts of new solar capacity installed in the U.S. So given the bids out there already, it appears that in 2022 solar installers will more than double their best year ever so far. The U.S. currently has 100 gigawatts of solar electricity-generating capacity, so in just one year we are poised to add nearly 50% of our current total. A gigawatt of power can provide electricity to about 750,000 homes. So the 44 new gigawatts we’ll put in next year have a nameplate capacity that would under ideal conditions allow them to power 33 million homes." ----- "Not only is there a lot of good news on the green energy front but there is good news in the bad news for fossil fuels. S&P finds that coal plants are being retired way before the utilities had expected. Some 29 gigawatts of coal retirements are expected from 2020 through 2025. "
Nov 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Zemmour’s way of thinking stems from a tradition going back to the French Revolution of 1789. Catholic conservatives and right-wing intellectuals, who hated the secular republic that emerged from the revolution, have long fulminated against liberals, cosmopolitans, immigrants, and other enemies of their idea of a society based on ethnic purity, obedience to the church, and family values. They were almost invariably anti-Semitic. When Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of betraying his country in the notorious scandal of the 1890s, they were on the side of Dreyfus’s accusers. ---- Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 gave reactionaries of this kind the chance to form a French puppet-government in Vichy. Zemmour has had kind things to say about the Vichy regime. He also has expressed some doubt about the innocence of Dreyfus. ---- None of these views would be surprising if they came from a far-right agitator like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But Zemmour is the son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Algeria who lived among the Muslim Berbers."