Oubliette

Oubliette: from French oublier, to forget.
A secret dungeon, access to which was gained only through a trap-door above, often having a secret pit, below, into which the prisoner might be precipitated.
Can you think of a most horrid place to spend some me-time? I can’t. To my surprise, an English friend of mine used this word this weekend; I didn’t know the word had been borrowed from French into English, but now that I’ve looked into it, it makes sense, as there is no equivalent in English.
The etymology of this word is very interesting; it comes from oublier, to forget, to which is added the diminutive –ette suffix, which indicates a smaller version of the word it is attached to: it is found in words such as fourchette (little fork), statuette (little statue), maisonnette (little house), jardinet (little garden) etc.
However, diminutive suffixes have an emotional baggage and are sometimes used to denote affection. Minette (kitten) and poulette (little chicken), for example, are affectionate words in French, and words like maisonnette evoke the image of a sweet little house rather than a dingy shed. This is why oubliette is such an odd word: the affectionate slant the –ette suffix can take is at odds with the horror of what it represents: a cozy little place where people are forgotten.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:59+00:00 July 4th, 2005|Words|2 Comments

About the Author:

Celine
I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.

2 Comments

  1. Michael Farris July 5, 2005 at 8:28 am

    Two ideas:
    1. Irony, maybe the oubliette has pleasant connotations to the person who can throw the offending party in the ground and not have to worry about them anymore ….
    2. Don’t diminutives have a general (re)nominalizing effect in Romance? I seem to remember coming across examples from Spanish but can’t recall them off the top of my head.
    In Polish, diminutives are sometimes used to create new derived nouns (where no diminuation or affection is implied).

  2. Matt July 8, 2005 at 2:07 am

    When I was a very small boy, and my mother a slightly unhinged graduate student in French, she used to cry “Into the oubliette with you!” if I, say, spilled juice on the couch. She would also howl “Ne touche pas!” whenever my grubby little hands made a wrong move in crowded shops. To this day, the sound of French makes me flinch.

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