Amuse-Bouche No. 30. Who’s counting? Le monde en chiffre
by Julia Frey
Un chiffre can also be a secret code.
Last night we spent la fête de Saint-Sylvestre (New Year’s Eve) with Michel in the country, and today, le jour de l’an (New Year’s Day), on a fait la grasse matinée (literally, everyone made a fat morning, i.e. slept late). One of the joys of gathering together over le brunch is discussing the night before, and teasing Michel, who, for mysterious reasons, insisted on dragging every girl in the room over to inspect “le gui l'an neuf” (the New Year’s mistletoe).
01/01 (le 1er janvier) is a new beginning -- a good time for deciding what counts, and how to count it. OK my strong suit isn’t les maths, but I know the difference between numéro, as in “That was quite a numéro you did last night, Michel,” nombre as in “you drank un certain nombre (some, i.e. a large number) de verres, but who’s counting? (mais n'entrons pas dans les détails" or "à ce stade là, on ne compte plus),” and chiffre, as in “when you’re drunk you’re un zéro en chiffre (synonyme: nul -- a real loser).”
Here's the countdown: Un chiffre (figure, digit) is a number between 0 and 9 en chiffres arabes (Arab numerals). XXX is an example of un chiffre romain, except when I sign a letter “XXX, Julia.” Un chiffre has no value, it’s just a symbol, like a letter in the alphabet, unless it’s a chiffre (sum, total) calculated, say, by un homme-chiffre (numbers-cruncher) when preparing the mysterious chiffre d’affaires (sales figures) of a business. A monogram is also called un chiffre, because it’s usually complicated and hard to read, like un chiffre (cipher, encryption code) used by spies -- and by you, to unlock your cell phone. Which you’ll need, if you forget the code that gets you into a friend’s apartment building in Paris.
A chiffre becomes un nombre (number) when it takes on a meaning, just the way la lettre A becomes un mot in “il a” (he has) or “A+” -- short for “à plus tard” (see you later). Un nombre describes a quantity, as in nombre atomique. It has a physical, or at least a mathematical sense, even when you don’t know exactly what it adds up to, as in un nombre incalculable d'étoiles, source of the metaphor un chiffre astronomique. If the quantity increases, you accumulate chiffres. Paradoxically, trente-six (36) is considered a very large number of things. So if you get hit on the head, you see trente-six chandelles (candles, i.e. stars) which one hopes only happens tous les 36 du mois (never).
A similar impossibility, la semaine aux quatre jeudis (the week with 4 Thursdays) began as un voeu pieux (wishful thinking) because formerly on Thursday, French schools were closed. But if something happens tous les 4 matins (every 4 mornings), it can be expected at frequent intervals. Ordinarily, 4 is a small number. The French title of Bertolt Brecht’s The Three-penny Opera is L'Opéra de quat'sous. And if it plays to a nearly empty theatre, it attracts an audience of quatre pelés et un tondu (four baldies and a skinhead).
A numéro is different -- it’s a name made out of chiffres, usually to represent a position in a series. Its meaning is not related to quantity; it just identifies something, like un numéro de téléphone or un numéro de plaque (license plate). Though un numéro de vaudeville originally reflected the order of skits presented onstage, it has evolved into the expression faire un numéro (to put on an act), thus: “elle lui a fait son numéro de la cover-girl irrésistible.”
Even numéros made out of chiffres can get confusing. “J'habite au numéro 12 bis (literally “number 12, a second time”) sounds like double talk to an unsuspecting étranger. Everybody knows that No. 12 represents the twelfth house on the street. But who knew that No. 12 bis is an address added next door to No. 12, after the street was officially numbered? Consequently No. 12 ter -- “number 12, a third time” (if any) is the house later built next door to 12 bis.
French literary snobs use bis in the Latin aphorism, “bis repetita placent” (things repeated are pleasing), leading us to the verb bisser -- yelling “Bis ! Bis !” (Encore! Encore!) at the end of a concert. I have to admit I’ve never actually heard an audience say that. When French audiences like a performance, they clap rhythmically, causing prickly confusion (embarrassment) for any Americans present. In the U.S., slow-clapping is an insult. We only do that if we hate the show.
But back to the word neuf (nine, new), as in l’an neuf, which can prêter à confusion (be misleading). Le pont Neuf for example, is not the newest bridge in Paris -- that’s la passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, a footbridge completed in 2006. It’s not the ninth bridge either. Depending on whether you count Paris’s 37 bridges beginning upstream or downstream, le pont Neuf is either No. 12 or No. 17. In fact, although it has recently been restored, le pont Neuf is, en chiffres ronds, 400 years old -- the oldest bridge in town. It was named when they began building it in 1567. Apparently they still considered it new when they finished it, 36 years later, in 1603.
Bonne année !
© Julia Frey 2011