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The Straight Dope


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How did Fido become the more or less generic name for the family dog, when in fact there are few canines that actually answer to that moniker? --N.D.G., Chicago

If you'd been properly educated, N., you wouldn't have to ask this question. Then again, if you and the rest of the boomers already knew the easy stuff, this job might actually become strenuous. Fido comes from the Latin fidus, faithful, a fitting term for man's best friend. Or at least it was back in the days when four years of high school Latin was considered the bare minimum for a person of culture (hey, I took it). Fidus of course will be familiar to the many readers of the Aeneid, from the expression fidus Achates, faithful Achates, Achates being the character who played Pancho to the heroic Aeneas's Cisco Kid.

Our high school French teacher always insisted learning French was important because it was going to become the international language of business. Now I hear English is mandatory in international aviation, and the Chinese students in Beijing spoke English to the international media. Was our French teacher shucking us? Merde! --Les Petites, South Boston

Now, now. He/she probably just didn't know any better. French teachers lead lives of such yawning emptiness already that as a matter of policy no one tells them the awful truth, which is that French is a language on the way down, not up. Once the language of diplomacy, French was used in the royal courts of Germany, Russia, and Italy during the 19th century. Fifty years ago Somerset Maugham called it "the common language of educated men" (women too, one presumes). But it's been in a state of decline since World War II, having long ago been supplanted by--you guessed it--English.

English is the primary language of more than 400 million people and is the second language of hundreds of millions more. It's essential in science, technology, economics, and finance. It's the official language of airport control towers, might as well be the official language of computer software, and of course is vital to a perfect comprehension of MTV, Madonna, and other pillars of pop culture. French is the primary language of maybe 114 million, including such outposts of world commerce as Haiti, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso, and is essential chiefly to reading menus at Le Cirque.

The French have been desperately attempting to reverse this trend. In addition to hosting international conferences of "Francophone" (that's French-speaking to you) nations, France as of 1986 was spending $750 million per year to support 20,000 French teachers in 155 countries. It also employs language police to guard against un-Gallic intrusions such as le compact-disc. But all in vain.

Not that French is totally useless. Au contraire. It remains the language of international pretension, having a certain je ne sais quoi that appeals irresistibly to the nouveaux riches. Also, let's face it, je t'aime sounds infinitely classier than "luv ya, babe." But French is more likely to come in handy in the dark hours after the business meeting than during.

Why is the room where TV talk-show guests wait before going on the air always called the "green room"? I've never seen one that was green. --Zsa Zsa, Los Angeles

Yeah, and for good reason--greenish hues tend to make the inhabitants look like they just died of gangrene. Legend has it that the green room, also styled greenroom or green-room, goes back to the days of Shakespeare, when the actors lolled away the time between entrances on the lawn behind the theater, or "on the green." Alas, like so much else in show biz, this appears to be a crock. According to my Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known usage of green room was in 1701. One plausible theory is that the green room was originally painted green to rest the aching peepers of the actors, who were bleary-eyed from the bright stage lights.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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