Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNQ. I recall that you once made an interesting connection between a Saint and the French name for a taxi, but I don’t have a clear recollection. Would you revisit this subject some time? Are there other examples like it?

A. I suspect that the question here pertains to a French word for taxicab; namely fiacre. The Hotel St. Fiacre in Paris was the location at which hackney coaches were first available for hire. (See The Random House Dictionary.) In popular usage the name of the hotel was transferred to the coaches. (The German word is der Fiaker; I recall seeing these cabs lined up before St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.)

St. Fiacre (seventh century) comes down to us through medieval Irish chronicles; his memorial was once celebrated in France on 1 September. Curiously, he is venerated here in America as a patron of gardeners, many of whom have a small statue of him in their backyard plots of flowers or vegetables. (One legend relates that Fiacre, a hermit, having traveled from Ireland to France, was gifted with as much acreage as he could plow in a day. The acreage he plowed eventually included a hermitage, a chapel, as well as an inn and a village.)

A comparable example of how St. Fiacre’s name affected language is that of St. Martin of Tours. The word "chapel" derives from his military cloak, which was displayed in a small sanctuary following his death. According to legends, St. Martin, a military officer, was once approached by a beggar at the gates of Amiens on a frigid day. Martin cut his cloak in half with his campaign sword, and gave one half to the beggar. In a dream afterward, Martin said he heard Christ say to him, "Martin, yet a catechumen, has covered me with this garment."

The Old French word for "cloak" was chapele. (See The Oxford Dictionary.) Originally the sanctuary was called "the place of the chapele"; eventually, it came to be called the chapele itself.

Another example in this context is St. Valentine, a name that occurs several times in the Roman Martyrology. Our contemporary world has deleted the prefix, "St." from his name, for secular, materialistic, or other reasons. But the legends all converge on the fact that the day was originally dedicated to praise God in the name of one of God’s special friends; namely, a saint – for a good reason. Incidentally, all the foregoing is known quite well by Catholics who were schooled from childhood in their Faith, but such references sound strangely of another planet to those who lack even scarce knowledge of our rich 2,000-year history.