Pardon me - was I speaking French?

You may think you're speaking English, but you may be speaking French without knowing it. Here are some examples of familiar words that are French in origin.

The truth about "spruce": Just about anything you got from Prussia in the Middle Ages was called "Pruce" (later "Spruce") in Old French. Imports included spruce canvas, spruce iron, and spruce leather. Because everything from Prussia was so highly regarded, "spruce" came to mean neat, trim, and dapper, as in "to spruce up." Other word pundits say that "spruce" may originate from the neat, trim appearance of the spruce tree (from Prussia, of course), a tall, straight conifer used for the masts of sailing ships.

Put on a shirt and dance: The shimmy, a wiggly jazz dance from the the early 1900s, owes its name to "chemise," French for "shirt." Word experts say that the shaking action of the dance, particularly about the shoulders, mimics the action of slipping on a chemise.

A financier's shadow: "Silhouette" comes from French statesman Etienne Silhouette, an unpopular finance minister in 1700s France. His tight-fisted policies (he cut royal expenditures and reduced government pensions, for instance) caused critics to call the inexpensive shadow-portraits "silhouettes" as a way to try to mock him.

SOURCES: 'Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,' by Robert Hendrickson; 'Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins,' by William and Mary Morris; Webster's Word Histories; 'Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology,' by Robert Barnhart; 'A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage,' by Bergen and Cornelia Evans; 'Horsefeathers,' by C.E. Funk; 'Word Mysteries and Histories,' by Robert Claiborne; Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; 'A Browser's Dictionary,' by John Ciardi.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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