What's an intuitive derivation behind ODO's definition that helps to remember its meaning:

milieu = A person’s social environment:

Etymonline: "surroundings," 1877, from French milieu, "middle, medium, mean," literally "middle place" (12c.), from mi "middle" (from Latin medius; see medial (adj.)) + lieu "place" (see lieu).

Yet how does 'middle place' induce the definition?


1 Answer 1


The relevant meaning in French (that is indeed listed in etymonline) is medium.

If you look in the French Larousse from 1863 (via Google books), it says:

Phys. Fluide qui environne les corps: l'air est le milieu dans lequel nous vivons.

This is clearly the meaning adapted into English. Translated, this means

Phys. Fluid that surrounds bodies: air is the milieu in which we live.

Surprisingly, the translation of this physics sense of the French word milieu is the English word medium, which also translates the quite different everyday French meaning of milieu (ie = middle in English). One might think that the French and English physicists had been talking to each other.

Of course, you then get the questions of how the word medium came to have this meaning, and whether medium was used for this in English before milieu in French, or vice versa.

Etymonline says:

Meaning "intermediate agency, channel of communication" is from c.1600.

So my guess is that a substance through which waves are carried is called a medium because it is an intermediate between the sender and the receiver. And this meaning got broadened to be much more general, including (for example) a substance in which bacteria are cultured.

  • I’m a bit surprised that they describe air as a fluid. I mean, I know it rains a lot in England, but still. Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 18:12
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    @Janus: the 1867 Larousse gives air as an example of a fluid in its definition of fluid. So it didn't mean exactly the same thing in French as it does in English. So in French in 1867, un liquide and un gaz were both examples of fluids. And in fact, looking at the current Larousse, that's still true today. Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 18:59
  • I suppose both gases and liquids flow Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 19:08
  • +1. Thank you. Would you please clarify 'Surprisingly, the translation of ... different everyday meaning of milieu.'? In the first (independent) clause, are you saying that milieu (Fr) => medium (Eng)? Then what happens to medium (En)? Are you referring to the English or French milieu as the last word in that sentence?
    – user50720
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 7:59
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    The everyday meaning of milieu in French is middle. The everyday meaning of medium in English is also middle. Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 4:21

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