adret

A while back, I introduced you to the ubac: the shady side of the peak. Every hill or mountain on the planet, being of three physical dimensions (as far as we know), has parts that are more towards the equator and parts that are more towards the pole – the exceptions, of course, being those few peaks that are right on the equator (neither pole has a peak on it). Those parts that are more towards the equator are more exposed to the sun; those that are more towards the pole are more in the shadow. The sunny side of the peak is called the adret.

The exception may rightly be made that any mountain within the tropics will have the sun directly overhead twice a year and, for a segment of the year, have the sunny and shady sides reversed. So, for instance, in Cuba the ubac and adret may trade places in the height of summer. Employ of ubac and adret might take one aback or at least seem maladroit in those circumstances. But these words are from French and Occitan, and ultimately from Latin, so the tropics are off-topic, etymologically.

One may also point out that not all mountains have faces that are neatly north or south. This is true, too: a knife-edge peak aligned north-south will have no adret and ubac to speak of. But on the greener, softer slopes of agrarian France, the distinction is more easily and consistently made.

Since I have said this word comes to us from France, you may infer that it is said like “a dray,” and if so you are right. If, however, you think of it as “a dret,” you are also right. We stole it and we do these things to words we steal into English, after all. But to say it “ad ret” would be beyond the pale.

Or you could join the small cadre that make it adrec, or be precious (what a drag) and put on the Old Occitan adreg, but both of those look more like brands of Scotch whisky and would not be illuminating – or adroit. Well, they would be related to adroit, as this word is. You may know that adroit means ‘skilful, adept, dexterous’; ‘dexterous’ brings to mind the further origin of adroit: French à ‘to’ plus droit ‘right’ – ‘to the right’. That droit used to be droict (hence the c or even g rather than t in adrec and adreg); that in turn traces back not to dexter but to directum, ‘straight, direct, right’. It is the right not of the right hand but of rightness or correctness (and, yes, correct has the same rect, which incidentally traces even further back to the verb regere ‘rule’).

If you read my note on ubac you will know that it comes from the root that gives us opaque, which in this case means the dark side. So a mountain has a light and a dark side, and light makes right in this view. You are right to want the right to the light side if crops are your trade, for the sunny sides are much more highly rated. I don’t mean to throw shade on the ubac: direct sun has its drawbacks too. But you will probably tread your dray horse on the adret. Seek the lesser lights in the shadows, but make hay where the sun shines.

2 responses to “adret

  1. Neither ‘adret’ nor ‘ubac’ it allowed as “a word” in Scrabble (at least, not the British/Collins version that I and relations in Australia play.) However, the concept is very much part of the everyday life of the village in Austria where I have done research for 35+ years: the main valley in the village runs West-East and one often gives directions to farms and houses using ‘on the sunny side’ or ‘on the shady side’ (the points of the compass, N W S E, are not part of the village dialect’s traditional vocabulary). Over the mountains to the south lies the Republic of Slovenia, which often uses the slogan “On the sunny side pf the Alps” in its publicity. I suspect that the villagers’ reliance on the ‘sunny/shady’ distinction is repeated in many valleys of the Alps, which generally (like cloud mass movements) run West/East. Thank you for the two new words!

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