13 July 2010

Of running hands and fool-protectors

I'm back at work. Ha! That makes it sound like my vacation is over, and in a way it is. The hot weather has ended for the time being, and I'm spending a good part of the day with a paintbrush in my hand.

I'm not painting, though — I'm varnishing. It's the staircase. Or the banisters, more precisely, for the moment — the ones attached to the staircase itself, of course, but also the ones attached to the floor up in the loft. Those are the ones that prevent anybody from falling into the stairwell.

I found myself leaning dangerously over the garde-fou
to reach the back sides of the posts with the paintbrush.

In English, we use the word "banister" or "bannister" for both those architectural features. In French, there seem to be different terms. And there are quite a few of them.

The banisters affixed to the floor are called « une balustrade ». We have the word balustrade in English too, but I'm not sure we use in everyday parlance. It's a technical term, and sounds like something old-fashioned and formal. It just "a railing."

A balustrade is a railing. Bridges have them, and balconies and terraces, to keep people from falling off. Or jumping. Another French term for this kind of railing is « un garde-fou », a fou being a crazy person, and you don't want him to jump.

After all the work and hours spent putting a coat of varnish
on the balustrade, now I just have to start all over
again. It needs a second coat.

The banister attached to the staircase itself — the "handrail" — is called, in French, « une rampe ». That's a little confusing to us anglophones, because for us a "ramp" is something else entirely. In French it can have pretty much the same meaning as in American English, however. I once lived on a street in Rouen called « rampe Bouvreuil ». It was a short street that ran uphill (and downhill) linking a boulevard to a street. A bouvreuil is a bird. A bullfinch, according to the dictionary.

British English seems to have its own meanings for the term. The dictionary tells me that "ramp" in Britain can mean what we call a "speed bump" and what the French sometimes call
« un gendarme couché ». But that is beside the point.

I was afraid I wouldn't see any difference in the wood
after applying a coat of clear varnish to it, but
I was wrong. It does look better.

Anyway, « la rampe » on a staircase is its handrail. It serves two purposes: to keep you from falling off, and to give you something to grab onto to haul your body up the steps. If there is a handrail attached to the wall up which the staircase runs, but not attached to the stair itself, that's called « une main » — a "hand" — or « une main courante » — a "running (or flowing) hand." I wonder if there's a technical term for that in English, besides "handrail." It's not to be confused with « une main baladeuse » — "a wandering hand" — but that's off the subject.

Now "running hand" isn't a term you need to use very often, even when you live in France. If you called it « la rampe » you'd be understood. The problem is, you hear people talking about the need to have « une main courante » along a staircase, and you don't know what they are talking about. Until you look it up.

These are the thoughts I have as I spend hours applying varnish to the posts and rails of the banister up in the loft. Having two languages in your head can make you kind of crazy. Hence the garde-fou I'm working on. And now, back to work. I still have the rampe and the marches (treads) and contremarches (risers) to do.


  1. This is why learning another language is so hard!

  2. Very informative and entertaining post. I wonder what « une main baladeuse » would do in a stairwell!

  3. Very educational!
    Painting those banisters etc is so fiddly. I hope you have a good system for it otherwise it's easy to find bits you have missed when you go back to admire the effect later - usually just after you have washed the brushes and tidied up !!

  4. Jean, hi, I'm not very systematic. My only system is to keep calling Walt to inspect the work and point out the parts I've missed.

  5. Yes, this was a very interesting post... and that's what makes learning another language so interesting!

    Your hard work is definitely paying off, by the way.


  6. Chuckles at your "system". Do you get an "inspected by 99" sticker when you are finished?

    Interesting post.

  7. And then there's the main courante at the police station when you file a complaint!

  8. Isn't one definition of "fou" "one who varnishes in a heat wave"? Of course I know you're not "fou." Pretty sure, anyway.

    Jean is so right. Sad but true.

    chm, no one will ever walk up a staircase with you again!

  9. Carolyn, LOL and LOL and MDR!!

  10. A propos of nothing to do with this post....
    Was preparing potatoes for supper and was wondering about the progress of the potatoes in your garden.

  11. Strange coincidence. My post today is going to be about potatoes.


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