Get Me the Concierge


Image via Wikimedia Commons

“My husband used to be the concierge,” announces the woman in the window, “but he’s dead. Now I’m the concierge.” Movie fans will recognize the moment in Mel Brooks’s The Producers when our hapless protagonists approach the residence of the furtive ex-Nazi and pigeon fancier Franz Liebkind, author of the soon-to-be immortal musical “Springtime for Hitler.”

Liebkind’s apartment building is nothing special. It doesn’t have anything as glamorous as a concierge, just an urban denizen who watches the world suspiciously from a streetside window. Such persons can be found in Zola’s novels and maybe even in your home town.

In big hotels, the concierge, however, is a mysterious power. The modern concierge does not lean out the window eying the passing scene; aside from helping me with directions and the occasional restaurant reservation, I’m not entirely sure what the modern concierge does. (Concierges out there, please don’t email me. Let’s keep some of the magic.)

Concierge is a French word presumably used with raffish ease by French-speaking persons. If you haven’t studied French, however, you can be excused for staring in puzzlement at the letters in any French sentence and trying to make sense of them.

For example, if you were a French-less English speaker, you might piece out the sounds “Bonny knew it” as  a plausible pronunciation of the French phrase meaning “good night.” As French it would be terrible, though I’d know how you got there.

But there’s terrible French and interesting terrible French.

While I was traveling  this week  I overheard a couple discussing their hotel stay.

“We’ll ask the conciaire,” one said to the other. (I’ve invented the orthography here.) And then again, “The conciaire can take care of it.”

How—why—did the speaker erase the -erge sound at the end of concierge ?

It wasn’t just guests who were fiddling with the word. It was hotel staff, too. In a different city, a hotel staff member happily pointed me to the conciaire to answer a particular question.

Of course, maybe the speaker recognized the word as French, and intuitively applied the nonrule rule that in French, words aren’t pronounced as they appear to an English speaker. This is the nonrule rule that turns an éminence grise into an eminence gris. (“Maybe it’s spelled grise but pronounced like gree ?“). Or maybe the grise-to-gris transformation is a matter of gender anxiety. (“Hmm. That grise looks like a feminine form, so I guess your uncle Harold is an eminence gris.”) The acute accent often gets lost along the way.

Lots of French words sound fancy. Conciaire sounds fancy, too—and fancy because it does something to the end of the word. That it does something wrong isn’t the point: for the speaker, this little erasure might make the French word Frencher.

Mulling over the concierge/conciaire problem, I searched for the etymology.

I had long thought that a concierge was a person who had something to do with cierges, or candles. Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, another Mel Brooks classic, comes immediately to mind. I did come across the phrase comte de cierges, a sort of master of the candles in charge of lighting your palais. But I also found other etymologies. One of them sees in the term a shadowy Latin origin meaning “fellow servant.” That didn’t help me much. A more familiar explanation may be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines a concierge as a warden: “the custodian of a house, castle, prison, etc.”  We’re told without much explanation that it’s related  to a slew of Old French words like cumcerges. OED makes no mention of candles.

Of course, these meanings aren’t mutually exclusive. But meanings are one thing and pronunciation something else. Pace J.L. Austin, people already know how to do things with words, and they go ahead and do them, and when they do that’s sometimes what the words become.

This isn’t a question I can ask the concierge next time I’m at a hotel that has one. As to the rise of conciaire as at least a second pronunciation, I  haven’t a good explanation why it’s happened.

If Bonny knew it, she’s not telling.


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