Well, that’s a weight off my shoulders. I didn’t let it transpire on this blog, but I was quite stressed during the whole American election campaign. The reason? I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to translate flip-flop into French. Cast your mind back: this was George Bush’s team favourite angle to attack his challenger, John Kerry, who had shown some indecision about Iraq. I had resigned myself to the fact that a paraphrase was always necessary, until I read this article by Stéphane Arteta about… blogs. His translation is girouette, or weather vane; in other words, a girouette is a person who constantly changes direction.
This Wikipedia article about popular etymology explains the interesting origin of girouette: although it might look like it is composed of girer (turn) and (pi)rouette, it comes in fact from veðrviti, an anglo-norman term borrowed from Norse that meant wind (veðr, which became weather in English) indicator (viti). This word was adopted in the 12th century under the form wirewite.
In the 16th century, as wirewite didn’t remind anyone of any known morpheme, it was turned into gyrouete, which mixes gire (turn) and rouette (little wheel); this must have seemed more logical, as a girouette makes circles when it turns.
Another famous albeit contested example of this corruption of a foreign word or phrase to make it conform to the local language is the London district of Elephant and Castle (for a more complete explanation, see worldwidewords). It may have come from Infante de Castille, a Spanish princess who stopped in South London before meeting her future husband. These foreign words were corrupted to sound more English, hence elephants and castles to name a busy junction.
Finally, this morning on Radio 4, I heard two men bicker over whether English spelling should be simplified or not. The one against it argued that a word’s spelling gives us a good idea of its etymology and origin, the other argued that a word’s spelling is actually often misleading (see girouette!). However, I think that if you simplify English, then you’ll lose any chance at all of knowing where a word comes from and what its relationship to other words is. I really enjoyed tracking down the complicated origin of girouette; it was fascinating to see its progression and the impact various cultures had on its development.