September 21, 2004

The missing word is Société!

Chris Waigl of serendipity kindly emailed to explain everything. Well, everything about the grammar of " la Mexicaine de perforation", anyhow:

You are missing an ellipsis. La Française des jeux is the (state-controlled) French lottery operator; La Lyonnaise des Eaux one of the two dominant drink water providers (plus other activities). Insurance or financial services companies in particular, but not exclusively, are sometimes called La [feminine form of a toponymical adjective] de/s... . The missing word is société.

The same phenomenon as Le vieux Nice/Marseille/[town name]: Nice, feminine in Italian, is, like any town of indeterminate gender in French. But vieux doesn't modify the town name at all, it modifies an elided quartier.

I figured there was some missing head noun, but didn't know which one. Nor did I know the pragmatic associations of the construction with company naming patterns.

Chris added more helpful information in a second email:

P.S.: About the definite article. The French news outlets all have (La) Mexicaine de Perforation. Not de la p.. I found this strange, but apparently company names vary.
Google finds:
- La Parisienne de Routage
- La Parisienne de Chauffage Urbain
- La Parisienne de Distribution

This naming scheme is common in companies that deal with infrastructure.
As for a good translation, it's bound to be a compromise.

But now to get a good translation, we need to think about the comparable naming schemes for infrastructure companies in the U.S. or the U.K.

Maybe "the Mexican Consolidated Tunneling Authority", or something like that. It'd take a bit of research and thought.

[Update: though I hesitate to question Mlle. Waigl, I notice that the website for what seems to be "La Parisienne de Chauffage Urbain" identifies itself in full as "Compagnie Parisienne de Chauffage Urbain", not "Société".

...and just as well, too, or there'd be a faux amis mistranslation waiting to happen: "the Parisian Society for Urban Warming". Their motto: "Change globally, warm locally"? (Of course, this is really a public utility that provides heat, I suppose by means of a network of steam pipes.) ]

[Update #2: Stefano Taschini emails to disagree with Chris in one particular, while supporting her account of the phrase originally discussed:

Nice is feminine in French, as can be seen on the pages of the tourist office of Nice were the city is referred to as "la belle Nice".

Many cities are obviously feminine in French: La Nouvelle Orléans, Andorre la Vieille.

In fact, I suspect that most cities are feminine, the only masculine ones being preceded by the masculine article: Le Mans (as in Les 24 Heures du Mans), Le Caire.

I do agree with Chris, though, when she says that masculine adjectives are used to refer to a specific quartier, as in Vieux Nice, and I agree with her explanation.

Stefano adds that

Regarding the absence of the article in the name "la Mexicaine de perforation", well, that conforms to the standard usage, as you would say "une maison de bois" or "Ecole de ski" (but "Ecole du Ski Français").

The extra article ("la M. de la P." instead of "la M. de P.") seems to have been an interpolation by Jon Henley in his Guardian piece of 9/8/2004, picked up from him by some other anglophone writers. As Chris Waigl observes, it does not appear in any of the French-language sources I've read. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 21, 2004 10:56 AM