Faire Grève: Where the French Word for “Strike” Came From

I really enjoy Stephen Clarke‘s books. He has an accessible, dynamic, and clever way of writing, as evidenced by the title of my favourite book of his: 1000 Years of Annoying the French. Appropriately, that one is all about Ango-French relations. He has an excellent eye for insights into France and the French that a French-speaking, Anglophone historian who once lived in France like me would find fascinating. I was reading his book Paris Revealed: The Secret Life of a City, and I came across this little word origin story that was too nifty not to share.

Historical photograph of men assembled in front of a building with a banner in French urging people to demonstrate peacefully.
Belgian workers gather in 1913 in front of a building with a large banner reading, in French, “Workers! Strike with bravery and self control. Soldiers! Don’t fire upon peaceful strikers!” “Grève générale en Belgique.” Image courtesy of Gallica.

Clarke was explaining how “the Hôtel de Ville was originally built on a square called the place de Grève (Sandbank Square)” in Paris and how it was “literally a beach.” He elaborates in a footnote:

Grève also means strike – it was on this sandbank that unemployed Parisian workers used to gather, or faire grève. Though they used to be hoping for an offer of loading or unloading work to come along – it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the word took on its modern meaning of the French workers’ favourite negotiating tool.” (68)


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