As I walked along Sofia’s main drag – Vitosha Street, which has been closed off to cars for the last few years and now, after trams have been stopped too, it is only accessible by foot, I was reminded of the strange double meaning of the word ‘pedestrian’.
Most commonly, the word is used in reference to a person who goes by foot or to something related to, or designed for, walking, as in a pedestrian street (such as Vitosha), a pedestrian bridge or a pedestrian crossing.
I’m no etymology expert, but this makes sense, because of the Latin root of the word – ped- (foot): same one that gave birth to pedal, pedicure, bipeds, centipedes and even impede and expedition (but not to be confused with words rooted in the Greek ped-, meaning ‘child’ or ‘boy’, and serving as the root of pedagogy, pediatrician and, uhm, pedophilia.)
What I find endlessly curious though, is the second meaning of the word pedestrian, namely – as a synonym for dull, uninspired, banal, ordinary and prosaic. The first time I heard it used in this sense, it struck me as the strangest of parallels, this equating of the act walking to the idea for dullness.
I tried to think of similar usages of the word in other languages. Though my command of German, French and Spanish is pitiful when it comes to nuances and double entendres, a quick check (thank you, Google translate!) shows that the words Fußgänger, piéton and peatón are used only to mean ‘a person who goes by foot’, while the other meaning of the word is rendered through translations of its synonyms: prosaisch, prosaïque and prosaico. [Update: I stand corrected. As a reader pointed out in the comment below, the word pedestre in Spanish carries the word’s dual meaning – both someone who goes on foot and something which is plain, vulgar, uneducated and/or lowly. In French, I am now finding another interesting translation of the adjective pédestre – to mean ‘rambling’ or ‘incoherent’. Any ideas about the German, anyone?]
In Bulgarian, of which I have a semi-decent hold and in which I am sometimes able to play with double meanings, the case is the same: пешеходец – although not containing the Latin root of ‘pedestrian’, means a person going on foot and only that, and прозаичен (‘prosaic’), on the other hand, has nothing to do with feet or walking. (Now, I couldn’t stop myself and I’ve gone and looked up the etymology of ‘prosaic’ too: as suspected, it comes from prose and “having the character of prose” (in contrast to the feeling of poetry), which then got extended to the sense of ‘ordinary’.)
But, as I was trying to translate the two unrelated meanings of the word and thinking of walking, streets and pedestrian crossings, I kept having the nagging feeling that there is another word linked to these concepts that is also used to describe something completely unrelated (and this will be my last sidetrack, I promise). As lexical fate would have it, the word ‘boulevard’ in Bulgarian – in addition to its common meaning (a broad city street) across different languages, is also used as an adjective to describe something, especially literature, which is of low quality, vulgar and trivial. Not much removed, it turns out, from the second meaning of ‘pedestrian’ (one of the translations for ‘pedestrian’ in Spanish and one of the meanings of the Spanish pedestre is vulgar.)
So, back to pedestrianism and dullness. If put in that context, it seems that there is indeed an everyday quality to walking; going by foot is in fact the least exciting mode of getting from one point to another; it doesn’t compare to the dynamics of riding in a car, bus, tram, on a motorcycle or even bicycle, let alone the thrill of flying in a plane. Or, in other words, experiencing the street through your feet is quite boring and mundane when compared with the sense of adventure and excitement provided by, and maybe even inherent in, other modes of transportation.
Turns out I was off on the specifics, but not the concept in general, and only because my thinking doesn’t seem to stretch far enough back to times when there were no cars, buses, trams, motorcycles or planes around. One explanation of the second, and strange, meaning of ‘pedestrian’ that I found is that it was first used in contrast to ‘equestrian’, or going on horseback.
So, ta-da, there you have it!
And that is that. All a bit much, maybe? But don’t you feel smarter after reading it? I know I do, after writing it. Now, excuse me while I go engage in more pedestrian endeavors. But first, I’m going for a walk.