The difficulties in Belgium have been on my mind lately.
This is partly because of my lifelong interest in international affairs. But it's also partly, I have to admit, because I've become hooked on a particular brand of Belgian spice cookies that appear, albeit erratically, at my supermarket.
When I don't find them, I worry that political troubles may be interfering with transatlantic shipments of baked goods, although my more rational self realizes that is unlikely.
The issue, as you may have read in the Monitor and elsewhere, is that Belgium, the little country at the heart of unified postwar Europe, is struggling with some unity problems of its own. Tensions between its two communities are such that dissolution into two separate countries is no longer quite unthinkable.
Belgium consists of two communities. The Dutch-speaking Flemish live in the north, in a region known as Flanders. The French-speakers, long dominant but no longer ascendant, live in the south. Their region is known as Wallonia, and they are called Walloons.
Is this a brand name that could perhaps have used a little more time with focus groups, at least before being released to the English-speaking market?
The sound symbolism is not great, for a start. That oon ending is trouble. It suggests buffoon, for instance. For the more literarily inclined, there's poltroon, a 16th-century term meaning "an abject coward."
This is something of an accident of etymological history. The Online Etymology Dictionary, my source for much of the above, notes, "The -oon ending was conventional in 15c.-17c. English to add emphasis to borrowings of French nouns ending in stressed -on."
Thus our English word maroon, comes from the French marron, or chestnut – maroon being conventionally the color of chestnuts. And indeed, Walloon is another example of this: The French equivalent is Wallon. A cartoon was originally a preparatory drawing on sturdy paper or cardboard – the stuff of which a carton is made. A quick Googling of "Rubens cartoons," for instance, brings up both comic strips and scholarly articles on the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.
So the jokiness is coincidental, but it still leaves Walloon with some funny sound symbolism.
And then there's the "w." It's not a native letter in French. It shows up in borrowings from other languages (e.g., English and German), the sort of thing that curls the hair of the French Academy – le weekend, le wagon.
But here's the kicker: The French Wallon and its English equivalent are rooted in a Germanic word meaning foreigner. This same root Walh is the root of the English word Welsh. It also shows up in surnames like Walsh, Wallace, and even Wallach, which comes from an old name for Romania.
Anthropologists will point out that many peoples' own names for themselves mean, essentially, "regular people" or "our tribe," and not "the other." Thus the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic are simply "the people" in their own tongue. And the Welsh refer to themselves in their own language by a very different name than "Welsh."
But for a group to refer to themselves as "foreigners" in their own land is notable. Etymology does not predict politics. But if it did, it might suggest, alas, how the Belgian cookie could crumble.