What’s in a Name? The Surprising Etymology of Paris Neighborhoods

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What’s in a Name? The Surprising Etymology of Paris Neighborhoods
By 1860, there were 20 arrondissements in Paris and historically each contained four administrative areas. Sometimes the names of these quartiers still rise to the surface of maps both paper and online. Some of these quartiers are named for saints, some are named for the parish church, others are named for their distinguished inhabitants. Some are the faubourgs, the false boroughs of Paris standing unbelievably on what was once the periphery of the city. Terminology reveals that actual buildings — follies, hospitals, and hôtels particuliers — were once located in the neighborhood. Others have puzzling or misleading names buried under piles of history. Here are some place names on the Paris map that have surprising origins. Télégraphe is a small neighborhood that sometimes shows on Paris maps in the 20th arrondissement. Its name comes from the optical telegraph invented by the scientist Claude Chappe. To jaded 21st-century eyes, the optical telegraph is unbelievably whimsical. A line of stations or towers would display signals, like semaphore, to relay messages. Using telescopes, operators would watch each other for the special codes. This rudimentary innovation was first tested by Chappe  on July 12, 1793 on the heights of Ménilmontant. Not only did the telegraph connect Ménilmontant with towns in the Val-d’Oise, he also built a tactical line between Paris and Lille. Grand châtelet (C) Public Domain, Wikimedia Le Châtelet area takes its name from the ancient French term referring to a small castle or stronghold, usually guarding a bridge or an approach into a city. In this case, it’s the Grande Châtelet fortress, a gatehouse guarding the northern end of a bridge near the present-day Pont au Change. The Grand Châtelet was a wooden tower built in 1130 on the order of Louis VI. Louis XIV had a stronger stone structure built which housed a court and some prison cells. It was demolished during the reign of Napoleon between 1802 and 1810. Combat des animaux (C) Gallica BNF The Combat neighborhood in the 19th arrondissement is named for the animal fighting – combat des animaux – which went on in this district.  The following is quote taken from an 1852 book called Pencillings by the Way by Nathaniel Parker Willis. “My curiosity led me to a strange scene today. I observed for some time among the affiches upon the walls, an advertisement of an exhibition of ‘fighting animals.’ I am disposed to see almost any sight once.” Willis found that “The Combat des Animaux is in one of the most obscure suburbs.” This was recorded in the days before Paris was arranged in arrondissements and when Willis eventually found the location (today the oval Place du Colonel Fabien), he saw a narrow alley lined with stone kennels each housing the most ferocious dog he had ever seen. In total, there were about 200 dogs condemned to fight. From 1771 to 1833 dogs, bulls, bears, wild boars and other animals were forced to fight to death. Bonne Nouvelle. 1550 map by Truschet et Hoyaux. (C) Public Domain, Wikimedia

Lead photo credit : Chappe's semaphore in Paris. 19th-century painting. Author unknown. Public Domain, Wikimedia

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  • Monique Van Damme
    2022-03-08 03:51:14
    Monique Van Damme
    I am a francophile in the extreme & a Paris-ophile (if there is such a thing) even more so. This was one of the most informed article I've read in recent years. So much I didn't know. Thank you!