Did you parlez-vous français in high school? If so, today’s choice might give you flashbacks.
Thanks to Kelleita for suggesting Mireille as Name of the Day.
Mireille has never caught on, perhaps because her pronunciation is tricky. Emphasis is on the second syllable – meer AY or mee RAY. To someone with no knowledge of French, Mireille could result in ma REL ee, ma RY lee or even meh REHL.
And yet, it is tempting to risk it.
The South of France once produced troubadours – the medieval performers responsible for many a cherished tale. Many spoke Provençal or Occitan.
Centuries later, Frederic Mistral was still writing in Occitan. He snagged a Nobel Prize in literature in 1904, but is best known for his epic 1859 poem Mirèio.
It’s a predictable plot. Rich girl falls for poor boy. Dad tells the poor boy to take a hike. The lovely Mirèio flees in despair. And dies.
Mistral had a hit on his hands. He translated it into French himself, transforming Mirèio to Mireille.
Here’s where it gets curious. Mistral indicated that Mireille was an elaboration of Marie. But that’s not so, and given his linguistic cred, it is unthinkable to imagine that Mistral himself didn’t have a more nuanced explanation.
In Provençal, mirar means “to admire.” Mirar traces back to the Latin mirare – to admire or to wonder – the same root that gave us the word miracle.
In any case, Mistral must’ve liked the name – he called his daughter Mireille. (No word on how her love life unfolded.)
Shortly after the poem’s publication, Charles Gounod adapted Mireille for an opera. It’s not often performed today, but even in the early 20th century, when it was in rotation (the New York Times reviewed a 1919 production) the name didn’t catch on in the US.
She’s out of vogue in France, too. Meet a Mireille today, and she was probably born in in the mid-20th century. Think of Mireille Guiliano, known for her bestselling French Women Don’t Get Fat.
Or, if you studied French, you may have seen part of Pierre Capretz’ well-known video series, French in Action. Capretz, a long-time member of Yale University’s faculty, combined a variety of techniques in his 1987 series. Much of it was simple illustrations and still photography, or Capretz himself.
But the stars of French in Action were the fictional Robert – an American exchange student – and his crush, the lovely Parisian student Mireille.
Mireille was played by Valérie Allain. When she wasn’t illustrating French grammatical concepts, some of her other roles were rather racy.
But if you can set aside your memories of the language lab, Mireille has much to recommend her. She’s fresh, French and once you explain her pronunciation, simple enough to say. If you’re heartbroken that Madeleine is so popular, Mireille could make for an appealing alternative.