Dear History Doctor: We just returned from Paris, and we had some trouble in the elevators. We finally figured out that the first floor is the second floor, and the second floor is the third. We rode up and down forever before we discovered this, and then we noticed “RC” on one of the elevator's buttons. What does that mean and does it have anything to do with history and how the floors are numbered?
Signed, Thoroughly Confused American
I will admit that this sort of terminology can lead to much confusion, but there really is a (sort of) logical explanation. And, as with so many other things in this life, yes indeed, it has to do with history.
That little “RC” beside the elevator button meant rez-de-chaussee. It is probably best for you to think of this as the entrance level, what we might call “street level.” In France, the “first floor” is considered to be above the entry level; what Americans would think of as the second floor is really the first floor to the French. So, if your hotel says you will be on the third floor, remember that to you this would seem to be the fourth floor. (If you have ignored your companion's advice to “pack light,” it may even seem like the tenth floor if there is no lift.)
But I believe that what you really wanted to know is why the French call the entry level floor the rez-de-chaussee. This is where the history part comes in. As I am sure you know, before France was France, it was part of the Roman Empire. Of course, since the French language is derived from Latin, many terms used even today reach all the way back for thousands of years. Rez-de-chaussee is one of these terms.
The Romans were great road builders and one of the benefits they frequently brought to outlying parts of their empire was an improved transportation system. Roman roads were the pride of the Empire. Many wordsmiths would probably guess that the “chausee” part of the term derives from CALX (“chaux”), lime, thinking that the reference was to lime being used on Roman roads. That seems to be true, as far as it goes. But one very authoritative text on etymology argues for a more interesting slant.
This text insists that a tenth century document de catalan definitively defines VIA CALCIATA as a road that is formed out of small pieces of stone that have been carefully crushed and consolidated. Now CALCIATA would appear to be a past participle of the verb CALCIARE (to walk on with the feet, to crush). That verb derives from CALCIA, which was in turn derived from CALX, which, in this context, meant heel, not lime. So, this part of rez-de-chaussee has to do with a road made of—or at least topped with—finely crushed stones, compacted by having folks stomp on them. Apparently chaussee was first used to designate roads constructed by the Romans using crushed stones, then later it applied to the substructure of subsequent roads, and then even later was used to refer to dikes built of such stones
Even today, this idea carries over into modern French, especially in connection with feet and shoes. When the French are getting their very young children off to school, they have to chaussent les enfants (put on their shoes for them), and chausser du 40 means you wear a European size 40 in shoes. And of course, chaussette is sock(s). If you are still with me, we will move on to the “rez” part of the phrase.
The “rez” part comes from the Latin RASUS, past participle of RADERE (“raser”), meaning to shave. The Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise informs us that the use of this word was already becoming rare by the 16th century, but it survived in terms such as “raser les murs” (hug the walls) and, of course, in rez-de-chaussee. It carries the sense of cutting down something, of leveling something, and of being very close to something.
Now as you can see there are a lot of implications in this one small phrase. It implies that the rez-de-chaussee is that part of a building which has been “razored” so that it is level with a street which has been constructed using crushed stones. Whew!
This might be the time to point out that, besides roads, another great contribution of the Romans was—concrete. Whether it is egg first and chicken later, or the reverse, apparently the Romans learned that if you mixed powdered limestone with water, you could produce all sorts of solid columns, steps, and amphitheatres. On the other hand, the finely crushed stone itself was far better for road building since it solidified the base but still let some water drain through. It also got better the more you tromped on it, since pressure served to compress the stones, whereas solid concrete blocks could crack.
So there you have it. The moral of this story is: remember to subtract one floor when you are making your hotel reservations. And when you get there and enter the rez-de-chaussee from the street, remember that you may have just been standing on a piece of Roman history.
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