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Bâton de pèlerin: double meaning of Macron's pilgrim’s staff

This ancient phrase, inspired by travellers, has a double meaning

The bâton does not only refer to a stick used for travelling, it also has other meanings Pic: Dario Pena / Shutterstock

Emmanuel Macron announced during a televised speech about a year ago that, before too long, he would be heading out and about in France in order, figuratively speaking, to take “le pouls du pays” (“take the country’s pulse”).

In a slightly overblown manner, he went on to invoke an ancient motif, that of the pilgrim bearing a walking stick: “Je vais reprendre mon bâton de pèlerin”, he said. “I will again be picking up my pilgrim’s staff.”

The bâton he refers to has long been the faithful companion of lone walkers who, for centuries, purposefully crossed trails and roads leading them to their holy destination, be that Rome, Jerusalem and, specific to French pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela (St Jacques de Compostelle) in Galicia, northwestern Spain.

The supporting staff was originally called a “bordon” or “burdun” in the Middle Ages, from the Latin burdo, meaning “mule” – in reference to the walker’s traditional companion.

Later the word morphed into bourdon, but here the word’s origins become retrospectively more cloudy: some historians say it is a derivation of the Old French word behort, meaning a long lance like jousting spear.

With this latter etymology in mind, Macron’s use of the phrase “bâton de pèlerin” has a double meaning – beyond the reference to travelling around, the phrase also indicates one’s readiness to engage in an impending struggle or fight.

As for bâton (from the Latin verb bastare, to carry), it has an array of meanings, beyond “a stick” – colloquially speaking it can also refer to “one million old French francs”, or even a penis.

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