Wednesday, March 8, 2017

dossier

With the reemergence of Christopher Steele, former MI6 guy, who went into hiding after compiling a not (yet) wholly substantiated intelligence report which became public through Buzzfeed, the word "dossier" has attained prominence in the news cycle. And I have become aware that I don't really know what a dossier is. I mean, I have a sense of it, just from this example, but I don't know its precise definition or its origin--though on that last, I assume it comes to us from the French. Let's find out.

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                                                                                Yann Rich√©


A dossier is actually a pretty simple thing. It's just a collection of detailed papers about a certain person or a certain subject. And, yes, it's from the French. It came into English some time around 1880, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The dos part comes from twelfth century French and means "back", which in turn goes back to Vulgar Latin dossum, a variant of the Latin dorsum, also meaning "back", like, you know, dorsal fin.


                                                                             Pixabay/Hans
There are a couple of ideas out there about why "back" has anything to do with it. One is that these packets of paper used to have  characteristic labels on the back. Another, at first glance,  a little more out there, is that such bundles of papers would have a bulge that resembled the curve of a back. (I say, show me.) But an interesting support to that hypothesis is that there is another Old French word, dossiere, which meant the back strap or ridge strap of a horse's harness. So, you decide.

                                                                            Pete Markham




In looking at the site English Language & Usage, a different aspect of "dossier" came up, which hadn't quite risen to the surface for me, but is interesting in the current context. A commenter there said that for him, "dossier" had a negative connotation, and he wasn't sure why, given the neutral character of the definition. Another commenter said that this was because of its Cold War connotations, and still another that most of us know the word largely from spy novels. Someone else pointed out that in fact, dossiers had been kept on potential enemies of the state by regimes long before the Cold War, and that there are cognates and near cognates in several European languages.

That said, "dossier" is a word that can and often does have a completely neutral meaning. As I was looking up the etymology, I found a listing for Etymology Dossier, which turned out to be a detailed list of a chapter's contents on Medieval Grammar.

In the current moment, though, all our thoughts do tend to drift spyward...


 

19 comments:

  1. Good work Seana! I'm so addicted to TRMS now, every day a new revelation! Best Spy Show going...

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    1. Thanks,Julie. Yes, I've been a fan for some time, in fact it's the reason I am willing to pay for more cable, but by all accounts she is really on a roll right now.

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  2. And yes, dossier immediately rings "spy" now. Although, it also rings 'post tenure review" as well, thanks to Masa.

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    1. It's interesting that both the more espionage definitions and the more scholarly ones are equally valid. Just depends on which world you're moving in.

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  3. Interesting, didn´t know that. It reminds me of a french childrens song: Alouette, gentil Alouette, je te plumerai le bec, je te plumerai le dos... means picking the feathers, can´t we do that with the spy´s dossiers....?

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  4. The next question whether "dossier" has any relation to the (British) slang "doss," which means something like crash, or flop, or sleep. One will read of doss houses, or of dossing down for the night.

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  5. It doesn't seem like anyone can say for sure where it came from, the best guess is that it does relate to Latin dorsum. Again, not quite sure why back for sleeping rough, but I'd guess it has something to do with lying down, being on one's back rather than standing up, or something like that. Its first known use isn't until 1785 or so. Who knows why it popped up then.

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  7. I'm listening to the audiobook of Fred
    Vargas' "Debout Les morts" ("The Three Evangelists"), and a character has just leaned back on "le dossier de sa chaise" ("the back of her chair"). Looks like the old meaning survives in modern French.

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  8. Also, it's very cool that it comes from Fred Vargas. She writes great crime fiction.

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  9. I let you know as soon as I heard the passage.

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  10. And translated crime fiction, particularly into and out of French, had been much on my mind the past few days. A noted translator whom I once had on a Bouchercon panel was a tablemate at dinner, and we talked for a while, and I also by chanceet up with a. Belgian journalist who, like me, had dropped in to schmooze with Todd Robinson as he tended Bar. Much good conversation was had about crime writers from all over the place, including Fred Vargas.

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    1. I'd say you live a charmed life, but you actually do a lot of work to make it so. Well deserved.

      I really need and want to read another Fred Vargas novel. She shares my sensibility.

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    2. I don't know about charmed, but it was a good couple of days in the crime fiction department for sure.'The Belgian guy raved about the novel he'd read on his flight to the U.S. and was tickled to learn that I had dinner with that novel's author in Santa Monica a couple of weeks ago. That's the kind of weekend it was. I may have to start hanging out in New York more.

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    3. Oh, and a newly translated Adamsberg novel by Vargas has been released relatively recently and one of her older Three Evangelists novels has been translated and will be released later this year.

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  11. I think I'm one or two behind on the Adamsberg novels, which is a good thing, as long as I finally get to them.

    Santa Monica is actually where I was born, and my sister Julie lives just north in the Palisades. Many of the photos from your Socal trip were resonant.

    But yeah, I think we all need to start hanging out more in the places we need to be. If only we can figure out how to do it.

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  12. New York is a pretty painless place to hang out if one lives in Philadelphia and wants to hang out somewhere else. I asked a bartender at Shade Bar tonight if I'm allowed to call the bar my local even if I live outside the city, She assured me that this was permissible.

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