Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Word Of The Week


I started learning French in the sixth grade. The year was 1970. That was 37 years ago. I stopped typing right there and stared at those numbers on the screen for a few minutes. In fact, numbers were the first things, along with the alphabet, that I learned.

My sixth grade class at P.S. #16 in Albany, NY. I'm the handsome devil in the bottom row, extreme left, sitting with all the other short guys. Can you just guess who my French tutor was ? He's the guy in the dark glasses with the pocket protector (second row, second from right). He is probably now the CEO of a huge computer or aerospace company.

I remember that I was placed in a class that had begun its French instruction the year earlier, so I needed to catch up. The teacher assigned one of my classmates to meet me each day before school started and teach me the alphabet and how to count up to one hundred. I have memories of sitting on the steps of the school reciting ah, bay, say, day, euh, eff, zhay, and the rest, along with un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, etc., while the other kids played four-square or hit balls up against the side of the building waiting for the first bell to ring.

Over 37 years you learn a lot of words and in most cases you forget when or why you learned a particular one. You hear it, you use it, you know it. But if you start to think about it, you don't know how or why you know it. You don't remember ever learning it. Today's word is one of those for me.

This morning I got an e-mail from the electric company reminding me that it's time to send them my relevé de compteur. Electricité de France (EDF) lets me read my meter and give them the numbers each billing period over the internet. They send a meter reader out twice a year to physically read the meter, but in the meantime they take my word for it. It's a good service in that it saves them the cost of reading the meter every month or two and, since our meter is inside the house, saves us the trouble needed to let the reader in.

Used as a noun, un relevé is a written representation of something, in this case the numbers on my electric meter. It also refers to my bank statement, un relevé de compte, or to any document that transmits information about account identity (un relevé d'identité bancaire ou postale).

But relevé(e) can also used as an adjective. It's the past participle of the verb relever, which means to stand up again, to upright, to pick up, to redress, or to turn up. The brim of a hat or a shirt collar can be relevé. So can a curve (as in a banked curve), un virage relevé.

Of course, there is also culinary use of relevé(e). It means to spice something up, to bring up the flavor of something, like une sauce relevée. I hear that usage all the time on the French food channel, Cuisine TV.

To understand what a difference an accent mark can make, be sure not to confuse relevé with relève. The latter, while still coming from the verb relever, has a different meaning altogether. It's a noun that means replacement or relief, like a relief pitcher in baseball. Prendre la relève means to take over for someone performing a task or job so that it continues without interruption, like runners in a relay race.


  1. Merci prof! I know relevé de compte and always hear relevé in relation to food, but wasn't aware it had so many uses!
    I've tagged you for a meme if you'd like to join in...

  2. Little did you know that the French you were learning would benefit you later in life...BTW you were the cutest kid in your class;-)

  3. And the two guys in the back row wearing ties are doing hard time in Attica, right?

    John H.

  4. John, so you spotted Bugsy and Jack-o, eh ?


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