How Do You Say "Piton" 
in English?

By Juliana LíHeureux

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How would Mainerís say the French word "piton" (pronounced "peeeton") in English? If English is eventually adopted as the official Maine language, as is periodically proposed in the Legislature, such a law could well eliminate the word "piton" from official use. 

This funny French word literally means "a little peg". In modern American translation, itís synonymous with an electric light switch. Some people turn their radios on or off by pushing the "piton". Doors open and close by turning a "piton". Actually, piton is a very a convenient word to describe the elusive VCR remote. 

Indeed, "piton" is planted in Maineís local vocabulary. "Whereís the piton?" is a familiar family hide and seek game. In other words, who hid the remote? 

"Piton" is a special word because the definition is mostly known in the mind of the speaker. In fact, "piton" can mean any kind of a small protruding knob or button. People who like the word use it loosely to describe almost anything. In hospitals where there are large numbers of Franco-American patients, nurses quickly learn what a "piton" means. Itís important to leave the piton close to a patientís bedside or else the call light will quickly summon the nurse back to turn on the television. 

And hereís a question. What are the numbered buttons on an electronic calculator called? You see the word "piton" is very handy because there is no single quick English translation or proper name for calculator buttons. Once upon a time, telephones had rotary dials. Modern phones, however, are dialed by pressing pitons. 

A person from away generally has no idea what "piton" means unless they can speak fluent French. Even at that, a fluent French speaker may not necessarily understand "piton" as meaning the VCR remote. In France, "piton" commonly refers to highway cones used to protect manholes or to close down driving lanes. Itís too bad the French cannot adopt "piton" to describe a television remote, because itís such a handy word. Instead, they formally call this technological channel selector a "telecommande". This sterile word with distinct English roots is surprising, given the French passion for language purity. Someone should teach them to use "piton" instead of "telecommande". 

Consider how quickly innocent words like piton might become extinct if a law passes and people become language police. Letís face it, legislative directives to eliminate languages other than English could drive some people to a literal interpretation of the law. Itís possible a future Franco-American governor (if such an elected official ever exists) might become a lighting rod for critics if familiar words like "pitons" are used in the Blaine House. Imagine the publicís cynicism if a Maine governor were to violate an English language law and use the familiar word "piton". Even worse, suppose a Franco-American judge would carelessly use the word "piton" in a court of law? 

Although these scenarios sound far-fetched, Franco-American oral history is full of stories about how language was once used as an effective means of discrimination against the French. Sadly, practically every Franco-American family has a tale to tell. Perhaps the most compelling story is a variation of how school aged children were "not allowed" to speak French while playing during recess. This story has several origins depending on who is telling it. For whatever reason, this retold tale of language discrimination has legs in the Franco-American culture because it is carried by tradition from one generation to another. 

In spite of past hurtful stories, Franco-Americans taught many Maine people about innovative uses for the word "piton". There is no single meaningful English translation to this quaint word, nor should there be. In fact, you cannot say "piton" in English because it comes out sounding rather pathetic, like "pitten". Thankfully, sharing the word "piton" with the English is one endearing way we can exchange cultural traditions. Actually, given the fast growing pace of modern electronic technology, we all might benefit from such a user-friendly word.

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Published on March 11, 1999
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux