July 25, 2007

The new French: tortured by work?

The Economist (7/21/07, p. 51) reports on responses to Nicolas Sarkozy's call for the French to get down and WORK.  "Sweating in Sarkoland: Coping with the irksome notion of hard work" comments:

Reconciling the French with hard work could prove ambitious.  The low Latin root of the French word travail is tripalium, an instrument sometimes used for torture.

We are asked to suppose that modern French speakers using travail call to mind a torture instrument of the Inquisition.  This is the Etymological Fallacy in full bloom, and in fact we've looked at travail and its etymology here on Language Log, only a couple of weeks ago.

On the other hand, it's not entirely implausible to think that some speakers of French might see an unpleasant penumbra around travail 'work', given the existence of travail 'pain, suffering'.  But maybe not.  How would we find out? 

Note: "Just ask them" is not a good plan of research.  If you just ask people to rate travail on a scale from negative to positive, how do you know which word travail they're rating?  (They might even be thinking of the count noun travail 'a literary work' or one of the other items travail.)  And if you ask them if the painful travail affects their feelings about the merely work-a-day travail, you're inviting positive responses, by juxtaposing the two words.  So a cleverer and more indirect approach is called for. 

And how would we distinguish attitudes towards words from attitudes towards their referents?  After all, speakers of English might -- probably do -- have somewhat negative attitudes towards work that would show up in responses to the word work, even though English has no work 'pain, suffering'.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 25, 2007 02:18 PM