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French Vocabulary – The spirit of the season Posted by on Dec 18, 2018 in Culture, Literature, Vocabulary

The news from France hasn’t been the best lately. As of this past weekend, les gilets jaunes are still protesting in the streets of Paris – despite concessions from the French government – and of course there was the sad news out of Strasbourg of l’attaque du marché de Noël (the attack of the Christmas market). But it is also presque Noël (almost Christmas) and the time seems right for something a little lighter.

Un sapin de Noel / A Christmas tree

Le sapin de Noel / Christmas tree (Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels [CC0])

First an update

Sadly as of this week, five people sont morts (have died) as a result of the fusillade à Strasbourg (shooting in Strasbourg). As a sign of their resilience though, the people of Strasbourg and les commercants (the shopkeepers) have returned to the marché. As this report from LCI says “en depit des événements du 11 décembre, les Strasbourgeois veulent vivre la magie de Noël” (despite the events of December 11, the residents of Strasbourg want to experience the magic of Christmas).

The “spirit” of the season

The French word esprit can have many meanings. It can mean mind, wit, or spirit. And like the English word spirit, esprit can refer to both a mental state and to a metaphysical state. Let’s look at some examples.

Esprit as wit, state of mind, etc.

One of my all time favorite French expressions – which has also made its way into English – is l’esprit de l’escalier (the wit of the staircase). Attributed to the French philosopher and author of one of the first encyclopedias in French, Denis Diderot, the phrase refers to those times when you think of the perfect retort or witticism too late after a conversation to employ it. Didert wrote in his Paradoxe sur le comédien (Paradox of the actor):

“L’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier” / A sensitive man like me, when overwhelmed by an attack, loses his head and only recovers himself (later) at the bottom of the stairs.*

Another esprit expression which has made its way into English is esprit de corps. Often used to refer to military groups, esprit de corps (lit. the spirit of the group) refers to a feeling of comradery and mutual respect and support shared among a group of tightly bonded individuals sharing a common goal.

Esprit as literal spirit

As we approach the Christmas season, it seems fitting to highlight esprit in the Catholic/Christian tradition of the Holy Trinity of le Père, le Fils, et le Saint-Esprit (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost).

In the famous English novel Un chant de Noël (A Christmas Carol), Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by trois esprits (three spirits) who attempt to lead him back to a more generous path in life avant qu’il ne soit trop tard (before it is too late).

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* It is useful to remember that sitting rooms and other formal gathering spaces in older homes (particularly those of the well-to-do) were located upstairs such that guests would have to go down stairs to leave a gathering.
** I found this groovy little track while researching l’esprit de l’escalier. I don’t know anything about it or the artist, but it seems to capture the many dimensions of the word esprit.

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About the Author:Tim Hildreth

Lise: Maybe not always. Paris has ways of making people forget. / Jerry: Paris? No, not this city. It's too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way. / An American in Paris


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