Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Tale of Three Words (or, depending how you look at it, of One)

Back when I was a teenager being forced to study French, it one day occured to me that maison was very similar to the English mansion, at least insofar as both words referring to a dwelling of some sort. The interesting thing, to me, was where they differed: maison refers to a simple house, whereas mansion refers to a big, fancy, luxurious house. This made an intuitive kind of sense, given that the French-speaking Normans conquered Britian in 1066, and for several hundred years after that the English aristocracy spoke French almost exclusively. Given that, it's not at all surprising that the word was adapted in English to mean 'big fancy luxurious house'.

When I came to Japan, one of the first things I learned was that modern Japanese contains a very large amount of 'katakana English' (katakana is the alphabet the Japanese use to write foreign words.) Only rarely does the meaning survive entirely intact, and manshon (マンション) is one of those. For some reason that I don't really understand yet, manshon refers to a large apartment. This can lead to occasionally amusing situations (Me: "Where do you live?" Student: "I living in manshon in Tachikawa." Me: "Wow! That's really cool! It must be very expensive for all that space!" Student (looking confused): "It is expensive, but it is very small." Of course that doesn't happen anymore, now that I know what manshon means.)

So here you have a word, which originated waaaay back with the Romans (the Latin mansio, according to my online dictionary); was elevated, on a rainy isle off the coast of Europe, to the status of 'rich man's house'; crossed two continents and found a third home in the difficult tongue of another archipelago, where it was used to refer to a kind of dwelling that didn't even exist when the word itself was first spoken.

Kinda cool, no?


At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi - I find this very interesting as almost every day in school I talk to the class about words and where they came from. I'll tell them tomorrow about "mansion". They think it's so neat that you are in Japan. Do you think any of your students would like to be epals with any of mine? It's a little late for this year, but maybe beginning in September. Love you, Mom

At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm that is kind of cool :-)


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