Why I Don't Use Freedom Drains; With Commentary on the Origin of the Term
During times of crises like this, I am inspired by the example of our legislators who work overtime to resolve the knotty issues of the day. We are all, I am sure, pleased to know that it is now law that in the three House of Representatives cafeterias, because of the snippy lack of cooperation of a certain European (former?) ally, deep fried strips of potato are now referred to as Freedom Fries. Similarly, battered bread, lightly browned, is called Freedom Toast. (One could assume from this that the country of origin of these delicacies might be named Freeland, and its citizens called The Free. A provocative thought.)
But I am not here to discuss Freedom Fries and their importance as indicators of patriotism. It was this little storm over nomenclature, however, that provoked me to investigate the etymology of another concoction that alludes to the unmentionable. Shall I keep it up and refer to them as Freedom Drains? In the current atmosphere I'm tempted, but I can't convince my editor that the USA Patriot Act is an appropriate topic for discussion here.
The term "french drain" has come to refer to just about anything that is low-tech, involves gravel, and serves to rid water from the vicinity of buildings. This is a particularly important function when the building is old and may have been built directly on the ground, as many adobe houses were. I have never installed a french drain because I don't trust them. It is good to remember that water runs both ways in a pipe, and I have seen more than once a drain that kept the vicinity dry at the expense of the building. I have, however, often made french drains a part of redundant systems combined with various mechanisms to capture water as it sheets down walls and that provide for protection from capillarity. But the technology is another topic; my interest here is the descent of the term.
As I began my research, various search engines provided me with "by definition. . . " a french drain is a bed of gravel, often combined with a perforated pipe, that conducts water off site. Well, everybody knows that! But why "french"? We must go to England in the 17th century to find the answer.
Thomas Blount's "Glossographia: or a Dictionary, Interpreting all such Hard Words" (1656), comments:
Sewer or Sewar, has two significations with us, one applied to him that issues or comes in before the meat of the King or other great Personage, and placeth it upon the Table, &c. The other, to such passages or gutters, as carry water into the Sea or River, in Lawyers Latine called Sewera. And there are Commissions of Sewers usually granted under the Great Seal, authorising certain person, to see Dreins and Ditches well kept and maintained in the Marish and Fen Countries, for better conveyance of the water into the Sea, and preserving the grass for food of Cattle. This word is probably derived from the Fr. (issue) an issue or going forth, as if we should call them Issuers, because they give issue or passage to the water, &c.
So an Issuer became a Sewer in the vernacular of the day. It seems a bit thin to say that it may have become a french sewer (or drain) only because the word came from across the channel. But one must not forget how Freedom Fries came by the name. In that context the 17th century Brits, in a similar fit of pique, may have made a memorable verbal association.