jeudi 20 janvier 2011

to bend, to fold – plier [English]

Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie. Une traduction en français sera publiée prochainement sur ce blog.

The French word plier can be translated as “to bend” or “to fold”, depending on the context. (Going from English into French, not all meanings of “to bend” or “to fold” would be plier in French.)  The distinction between “to bend” and “to fold” sometimes appears to be arbitrary. For example, we bend a leg but we fold our arms. This may be explained by the fact that “to fold” is usually used when one part of an object, such as paper, is folded and placed on another part.  By analogy, folded arms are those which are placed on each other.

To fold one’s arms
To fold paper

When we bend our legs, on the other hand, the one does not touch the other.

To bend a leg

There is obviously no etymological connection between “to fold” and ‘to bend”, on the one hand, and plier, on the other. However, a few related words in English do derive from plier.  

Compliant – When used in relation to physical objects, this adjective  describes something which conforms to certain requirements, e.g. software which is compliant with the latest standards. Figuratively it describes a person or entity which is submissive, e.g. a corrupt regime aided by a compliant press.

Pleat – a fold in cloth made by doubling material over on itself, e.g. a skirt with pleats.

Pliable – When used literally, this adjective describes the characteristic of a physical object that is supple enough to bend freely or repeatedly without breaking.  Figuratively, it is used to describe a person who yields readily to others. A word with the same meaning is “pliant”, but this is not commonly used, unlike “compliant”.

Plywood is a strong board made by gluing thin sheets of wood to each other.

The noun “ply” originally meant a layer, but has gone out of use. The verb “to ply” has several  unrelated meanings, such as  “to keep supplying something”, e.g. to ply with liquor.

to apply - It appears that this verb derives from the same origin. Online Etymological Dictionary ( provides the following explanation:

late 14c., from Old French  applier, Modern French appliquer, from Latin applicare "to attach to, to devote oneself to," from ad- "to" + plicare "fold”.  The etymological sense is "to bring things in contact with one another."

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