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In Rabelais' Gargantua, in Chapter 13, we find a discussion on the best means to wipe one's bum.

You can find Urquhart's translation here. I am specifically interested in the conclusion:

But, to conclude, I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole cleansers, and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs

(emphasis mine)

In Rabelais' original, this is:

Mais, concluent, je dys et mantiens qu’il n’y a tel torchecul que d’un oyzon bien dumeté, pourveu qu’on luy tienne la teste entre les jambes

(emphasis mine -- source)

Which in contemporary French is typically rendered as "oisillon bien duveté" i.e.,:

  • "oisillon" — a baby bird, a fledgling
  • "bien duveté" — fluffy, well downed

Why did Urquhart pick "goose", and even more specifically, "neck of a goose"?

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    Welcome to the site, and nice first question!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 23 at 18:30

1 Answer 1

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It's not a oisillon, it's a oison.

A oison is a gosling, i.e., a baby goose. See Wiktionary. (A oie is a goose; knowing this is what made me look oison up in the dictionary.)

So why did Urquhart pick goose and not gosling? I don't know. It seems like a translation error to me. He did at least get the right species, but I expect a gosling's down feathers are even softer than a goose's.

Why the neck? Presumably because, if you're holding a goose's head between your legs, the neck is the part that is in the appropriate position.

Why do some contemporary French sources translate it from Rabelais' French as a oisillon bien duveté? Maybe that's also a translation error.

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  • Thank you very much. oison rather than oisillon makes sense, and the probable explanation regarding neck does as well. I really appreciate it! Jun 24 at 12:45
  • For what it's worth, the Russian translation has it as "что нет лучшей подтирки, чем гусенок с нежным пушком" (source) i.e. a gosling (гусенок) with soft (нежным) down/fluff (пушком). Jun 25 at 0:12
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    @Peter Why do some contemporary French sources translate it from Rabelais' French as a oisillon bien duveté? Because the word oison is essentially unknown to contemporary native French readers and oisillon, despite losing the "goose" part, is better than potential alternatives like bébé oie or worst: oisillon d'oie.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 27 at 8:40
  • @jlliagre: Losing the "goose" part is unfortunate, because goose down is famously soft. But such are the difficulties of translation, even from Old French to modern French. I guess an alternative would be to use oison with a footnote.
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 27 at 17:18
  • @Peter I guess oisillon (which suggests poussin)'s down is soft enough for the intended purpose ;-)
    – jlliagre
    Jun 27 at 17:44

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