Monday, January 28, 2013

Stop and Go in Europe

We are planning a trip.  As it will be through linguistically mixed up regions it is necessary to polish up all available skills.  It has fallen to me to handle German, based on a passing familiarity.  I can manage fairly well.  In fact, once in a small village in Luxembourg I was mistaken for perhaps being Dutch and slightly tipsy, which I took as a compliment to my effective use of one year of high school German deployed enthusiastically.

So as I go here and there I pop a CD into the player and work on vocabulary.  Sometimes a word grabs my attention.

Traffic light for instance.  In German this is "ein Ampel".

I figured this must in some fashion refer to Amps the measure of electrical current, or to Andre-Marie Ampere, the pioneer of electrical theory.

But when on a walk with my spouse I mentioned this.  Alas, I too often bug her with etymological musings of this sort.  She said "Probably not", and mentioned that in French the term for traffic light is "Feu".  But she wondered if the common word "lamp" might be related to Monsieur Ampere.  L'amp sort of makes sense.

So what's the real story.  Any connections to be found?

Not really.

Ampel derives from the Latin, ampulla.  This in ancient Rome was a sort of bulbous flask that might look a bit like a traffic light.

Feu is from the Latin focus for hearth.  It more specifically means fire.  A light, or something that lights up, makes sense.

Lamp has come down more or less intact from the Latin lampas, or torch.

Poor old Ampere did not figure into any of this, but after an unhappy life (on his deathbed he supposedly left instruction that his tombstone read "Tandem Felix", which is "happy at last), he is widely remembered for his work.

Ampel interestingly has a personification, der "Ampelmannchen" or "little traffic light guy".

Ampelmannchen was specific to East Germany and is darn near the only example of Eastern Bloc design to actually catch on widely.  With reunification AM was retired for a time, but he has become a symbol of "Ostalgie", or nostalgia for East Germany.  By popular demand he has reappeared in both Eastern and Western parts of the unified Germany.

Addendum:  The dreary "Tandem Felix" inscription reported by Wikipedia to grace the final resting place of A.M. Ampere does not appear on his tombstone.  I am not certain if this is a result of reburial (he now occupies a joint tomb with his son Jean Jacques Ampere who died almost 30 years later), or if the whole thing is one of those internet legends.  I suppose the inscription could even be on the back of the monument but there does not seem to be much room there.  Or did the executors of his estate just ignore this final wish?.....

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