‘Petty’ is French

Sometimes one loses sight of etymology, which is a shame. Tracing borrowed words back to their origin is a good way of gaining an insight into the mentality of both the lender and the borrower.

The departure lounge at Folkestone is empty – all the drivers are outside, queuing up

‘Petty’ is one such borrowing. It comes from the French petit which in its native habitat simply means a non-judgemental ‘small’.

That’s what it initially meant in English too, when it came into the language in the fourteenth century. Throwbacks to that obsolete usage still survive in words like ‘petty cash’ or ‘petty officer’.

It took the English two centuries to attach a derogatory meaning to ‘petty’, and in its current sense of ‘small-minded’ it no longer sounds like a naturalised French word. That’s why the linguist in me is grateful to the French customs officials for issuing a useful reminder of the word’s Gallic provenance.

I come in contact with those people several times a year, when taking the Channel Tunnel either at Folkestone or, on the way back, at Calais. This I’ve been doing for a quarter-century, which is long enough to develop certain expectations.

For example, it has usually taken no more than five minutes (a bit longer at peak times) to clear passport control on either side of the English Channel, which the French vindictively call La Manche.

Once every 20 crossings or so I’m asked to pop the boot open for the douaniers to make sure no illegal aliens full of heroin and armed to the teeth are hiding there. That adds another five minutes to the procedure, which barely qualifies as even a minor irritant.

Yet arriving at the Folkestone terminal the other day, we found a serpentine queue of cars at least half a mile long, and a helpful sign informing the drivers that clearing passport control would take at least 30 minutes.

As it turned out, that was an optimistic assessment. In the end it took us an hour and a quarter, which meant we missed our crossing and several after that.

“What’s going on?” I asked the ruddy lass in the English booth one passes on the way to the French one.

“Well, there are no problems on the English side,” she said. The stress on the adjective was so pronounced that my next question was redundant. But I asked it anyway: “You reckon it’s revenge?” She nodded ruefully.

That takes us back to the etymology of petty. It’s as if the French are reclaiming the word, but this time in its derogatory English meaning. How much pettier can you get?

Those douaniers manning passport-control booths aren’t acting on their own initiative. Their superiors must have issued stern instructions that life must be made hard for les sales Anglo-Saxons who dared to defy the EU.

And I don’t mean their immediate superiors either. This pettiness reflects policy passed down from the ministerial level at least, if not from Manny Macron himself.

That is a hostile act, one of many to follow, as I hope you don’t doubt. And the only way to preempt such acts is to counter with some of our own.

My imagination isn’t vindictive enough to think what they might be, but possibilities abound. Our customs officers could, for example, search every French car and its passengers thoroughly enough for them to miss that day’s crossings altogether, which would exert upward pressure on the petty ministers.

Or else… well, I’d rather not think along those lines: I’m not French. Nor would I like to draw far-reaching generalisations about the French character – I have many French friends, and none of them is petty.

But some near-reaching generalisations are irresistible. When finally reaching the French passport control at Folkestone, I already opened my mouth to offer some, but Penelope wisely made me shut it.

If she hadn’t, we’d still be there.

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