Sunday, December 14, 2014


Stephen Sweeney, via Wikimedia Commons
The New York Times is currently running a series of essays, under the heading “Menagerie,” about the relations between humans and animals. I’m interested in the word “menagerie,” its relationships to other words, and what those connections among words suggest about the liaisons between the creatures themselves, ourselves.

The French word ‘ménagerie,’ a collection of wild and exotic animals, comes from the word ‘ménage,’ meaning household. ‘Ménage’ can also refer to a sexual relationship among the members of a household.

But words are related not only by etymology but also by association. When I see ‘menagerie,’ I think of ‘ménage,’ then ‘ménage à trois.’ And then, because I love French, I begin to think about merry-go-round horses and Edith Piaf.

“Tu me fais tour-rrrr-ner la tête. Mon manège à moi, c’est toi.”

This is Piaf singing about a lover as “my merry-go-round” in the 1958 song “Mon Manège À Moi.”

“You make my head spin. My merry-go-round, it’s you,” the translation goes.

‘Manège’ means riding arena, a ring where people ride horses round and round. It can also refer to the ring’s amusement-park equivalent, the merry-go-round.

Because menagerie refers to animals, because merry-go-rounds often consist of horses (plastic or metal though they may be), because ‘manège à moi, c’est toi’ sounds like ‘ménage à trois,’ I at first thought that ménage and manège were the same word. In the song, Piaf—well, actually lyricist Jean Constantin—equated the two. Her ménage, her relationship, was her manège, her merry-go-round, her thrill.

But no, they are different words with different roots. ‘Manège’ comes from the Italian ‘mannegiare,’ to handle. It’s based on the Latin word for hand, ‘manus,’ and the idea, I suppose, of maneuvering horses in the ring. 

But how does ménage relate to menagerie? Consult Le Petit Robert, the very thick yet somehow abridged French dictionary, and you’ll find that ménage, in its modern usage, has no animal association. Yet menagerie comes from this root. Is a menagerie a household for animals? Or are houses—and relationships—cages for people?

It turns out that centuries ago, the word ménagerie, at least in French, did have an animal connection: it referred to the running of both household and farm. Along those lines, there is such a thing as a house-barn, where farm animals live in the same building as their owners, conserving body heat. A ménage can be a menagerie.

‘Ménage’ is derived from ‘mansio,’ a Latin word for house or dwelling, and that from the Latin verb ‘maneo, manere,’ meaning to remain, stay.

Thousands of years ago, humans didn't remain anywhere for long; they moved with the beasts they hunted. Dwellings were accordingly temporary. Why stay in any one place unless the animals—and more generally, the food supply—do so, too? With fenced in animals and crop cultivation came more permanent homes. The development of ménages and menageries went hand in hand. 

Thinking of nomadic cultures brings to mind another vagrant, human-animal coexistence: the circus. A circus is collection of people and animals unique and amazing. It involves captive animals, yet it is not sedentary; it migrates, equipped with both cages and tents.

Circus was the word Philip Astley, known as the father of the modern circus, used for a riding ring. Thus the circus began, literally, as a manège, for trick riding, and later grew to include other acts, other animals. A circus is both manège and menagerie.

I once bought a t-shirt showing two birds perched together in a birdcage with its door wide open. The idea, the street vendor explained to me, was that the birds could fly away but chose to stay together in their birdcage (birdhouse?).

As I see it, the chief difference between a ménage and a menagerie is that in a human household, people choose to stay, while captive animals have no choice. There are grey areas in both domains, however. Humans who could quit their ménages at any time feel many pressures to stick around. As for animals: though you might rightly call indoor pets “captive,” they don’t necessarily want to run away.

The message of the Piaf song is that the singer is so enthralled by her lover that she feels no need to rove. “Je ferais le tour du monde; ça ne tournerait pas plus que ça. La terre n’est pas assez ronde pour m’étourdir autant que toi.”  (“I could go around the world and that wouldn’t turn more than this. The world isn’t round enough to stun, or dizzy, me as much as you.”A merry-go-round is, in part, a way to experience the feeling of covering distance without going anywhere, and the merry-go-round relationship is a stationary thrill. The motion of the manège, however metaphorical, enables the stability of the ménage.

When the cage door is open, my fancy flies pretty far and returns with diverse ideas for me to assemble. I want them all in my menagerie. They make my head spin.