Jacques Chirac’s magical stickbread

Arnold Zwicky’s lovely post this morning about baguette and how it’s surprisingly not a diminutive of bague threw me into reminiscing about my time in Paris — 12 years of my life. Instead of continuing to hijack the comment space over there, this is something to pursue on this blog, even though we seem to be averaging a post every year and a half.

In particular, there’s the half-remembered anecdote about Jacques Chirac, the former French president, which I’ve now chased up acros the ‘nets.

Baguette (the bread), of course, is a part of life in France with a high level of cultural significance, but the word can refer to all sorts of things parting from the basic meaning “small stick”: chopsticks are baguettes, and so are drumsticks (the kind you use for operating drums with [1]); there’s conductor’s batons; and there are magic wands. And this is where the anecdote picks up: In 1995, Jacques Chirac was elected president in an election that tipped from the political left to the right. In his first public speech, he said that he didn’t have a magic wand to solve France’s economic problems (unemployment was very high and I remember research labs getting close to being broke). The phrase was seen as the new president’s central statement and widely reported including in the international press. Unfortunately, in some countries the meaning of the word baguette was so strongly linked to the bakery product — 250 g of delicious crust with a little bit of relatively heavy white dough inside — that reporters didn’t think when translating baguette magique (“magic wand”) into their own language. A Belgian paper reported on the election and speech as follows:

De Morgen

The Belgian paper De Morgen of September 1995 reporting that the newly elected president of France “has no ‘magical stickbread'” (heeft geen “magisch stokbrood”) in a mis-translation of baguette magique [2]

Those crazy French with their over-emphasis on food — ascribing magical qualities to something mundane as bread.

As far as I can tell from trying to find a correct account of this story online, the phrase magisch stokbrood has since become a little bit of a jocular cliché in Dutch and/or Flemish (I do not know if the spelling differs in the two languages), following the rise of the Harry Potter book series.

(As a final note, I chose between magic and magical in English on intuition. It’s clearly magic wand in the idiomatic expression, but I think magical stickbread sounds better than magic stickbread. Opinions?)

[1] As for the chicken parts, in France chicken legs aren’t usually separated into what in English are called “thighs” and “drumsticks”, and the entire thing — about a meat portion’s worth for a smallish chicken — is referred to as cuisse (“thigh”).
[2] I was very happy to find this image in a Belgian blog in Flemish, where I took the liberty to steal it.

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Comment (1)

  1. Jack H wrote::

    I agree, “magical stickbread” works better. It sounds more appropriately loopy. And it brings “magical thinking” to mind.

    Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 8:23 pm #