Monday, 12 December 2016

The French Official Office


Recently we've had cause to need vaseline. Célestine needed some for her battery posts, Simon needed some for cracked heels.

To obtain vaseline in France you go to the pharmacy and ask the pharmacist for some. Vaseline is vaseline in French, by the way (pronounced 'vah-ZLEEN'). The pharmacist goes out the back and returns with a tube in a blue and white box. Printed along the side it says 'Vaseline Officinale'.


This word 'officinale' (or 'officinalis', depending on declension) I'm used to seeing as the specific name for many plants -- Soapwort, Common Fumitory, Garden Asparagus, to name but a few. I knew it meant a species that had medicinal use.

The word 'officinale' comes from the Latin 'officina', which means a place where herbal remedies are prepared. The museum at Issoudun has a very nice example, called in French an officine, with much of its original furniture, ceramics, and equipment. The French word officine is a synonym for pharmacie. So Vaseline Officinale is pharmacy grade vaseline.

I thought the French word office, which means an annex to a kitchen or dining room where food service preparation can be done must also be connected to 'officinale' in its sense of being a place where plant material was prepared for human consumption, but it turns out to come from a different Latin root. According to Larousse, office comes from 'officium', meaning 'duty'.

16 comments:

  1. Vaseline.... for dry, cracked heels...
    I use good quality Australian piddle...
    comes in a tube!
    And that set of posts about Is-you-done was wonderful...
    we must try and get out and about more!!

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    1. I'm pleased you remember and enjoyed the Issoudun posts.

      I have to admit I have no idea what Australian product you are referring to for cracked heels.

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  2. I like the word Pommade for ointment... Sounds like a drink to me...

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    1. It's really old fashioned sounding in English, isn't it? I tend to think of it as something 18C, for hair.

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  3. I agree with Tim, the Issoudun series was fantastic.

    It is interesting to note that when office means pantry, it is a feminine word in French, in other acceptations it is masculine! Just a way to exercise your memory! Officine is always feminine.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed Issoudun too. Thanks for the grammar notes, which I hadn't picked up on.

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    2. The Grand Robert dictionary says that the feminine office is archaic and has been replaced by the masculine (and the Robert itself is kind of archaic now):

      Pièce, ordinairement attenante à la cuisine, où se prépare le service de la table... - REMARQUE Dans cet emploi, le masc. est fréquent et le fém., quoique normal, semble archaïque.

      As for the pronunciation of vaseline in French, I think you have a typo. It would be [vah-ZLEEN] or[vaw-ZLEEN], with an AH (AW in the old pronunciation) not the UH sound. The AW pronunciation used to be standard, and still is common for some people (rural, older), who use the AW sound in gâteau or château, but that AW sound is also archaic for most people, so it becomes AH. In Paris, people even pronounce gare with that AW sound, as [gawr].

      BTW, vaseline is a not a proper name or brand name in French, but just a common noun.

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    3. I'll edit the post to reflect your pronunciation comments, thanks.

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    4. CNRTL doesn't say the feminine is archaic, but says there is a tendancy to make office as pantry a masculine word. I think it is mostly because of people's ignorance it was a feminine word! As they say, ignorance is bliss!

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    5. Et on n'arrête pas le progrès. For us foreigners trying to learn French, every little simplification is an aid. As somebody I know like to say, pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué.

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    6. Meant to say that I think it is the thing, l'office in the sense of pantry, that is archaic, and therefore the term. How often does anybody talk about an office and butlers and servants nowadays? Why would anybody know that there's a feminine form when the word office, as in office du (or de) tourisme, is masculine. Anyway, I found this list of French words that have different meanings depending on whether they are masculine or feminine.

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    7. Jean-Michel refers to the kitchenette he and Rosemary have off their sitting room as an office. That's where I first heard the term in French with that meaning.

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    8. The most common expression using the word office in that sense is couteau d'office, meaning paring knife or butler's knife (as opposed to butcher's knife or carving knife). But you can't tell if the word is f. or m. in that expression.

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  4. I seem to remember a TV programme in the UK where a GP recommended rubbing cracked heels with the inside of a banana skin - some sort of enzyme in it, allegedly.

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  5. A little helpful hint....if Simon soaks his feet in warm water with vineager added for 20 minutes, most of the dead skin will come off, keep working on the dead skin every day with a pumice stone, only dead dry skin splits, so when that is gone he should 'heel' quickly.

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  6. Simon Get some of that really course sandpaper on them... Works a treat!!! C

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