September 21, 2004

A Mexican perforator by any other name

It was a wonderful story, rivaling the greatest inventions of Jules Verne or Thomas Pynchon. As Jon Henley wrote:

There are, at most, 15 of them. Their ages range from 19 to 42, their professions from nurse to window dresser, mason to film director. And in a cave beneath the streets of Paris, they built a subterranean cinema whose discovery this week sent the city's police into a frenzy.

The bar. The complex electrical circuits and multiple phone lines. The automatically triggered recording of a barking dog. The "couscoussière à deux étages d'où partaient des fils électriques". And by the time the police who discover it get back with the bomb squad, everything is gone, vanished down a hole a foot in diameter, except for a note reading "ne nous cherchez pas" ("don't look for us").

But there are a couple of minor linguistic mysteries here, along with the larger factual questions echoing down the Pynchonesque passages of this «gros coup de pub médiatique». In particular, what is the name of the responsible group? what is its analysis, its structure and meaning?

The 9/7/2004 story in Libération, by Frédérique Roussel and Ludovic Blecher, said that the responsible group "s'est même présenté, sur RTL, sous le nom de «Mexicaine de perforation»". And indeed the text on the RTL web site, framing radio interviews with Lazar Kunsman and Patrick Alk, says that "RTL a fait une enquête sur la 'Mexicaine de perforation'". (The RTL text is dated 9/8/2004, but I suppose that the interviews must have aired a day or two before that).

Jon Henley's 9/8/2004 Guardian story called them "the perforating Mexicans". His 9/11/2004 follow-up used the French term "La Mexicaine de la Perforation".

On 9/18/2004, Eleanor Beardsley on NPR called them "the Mexican perforation".

Now, everyone seems to agree about where the basic referential morphemes here come from. The "Mexicaine" part is due to the fact that the responsible groupuscule frequents a bar called "Le Mexico". The "perforation" part is said to relate to the word perforateur (or perforatrice), about which the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française says that

Il s'emploie particulièrement au féminin, comme nom, pour désigner une Machine-outil, qui sert à creuser des trous dans la pierre, les roches, les matières dures. ("It is used especially in the feminine form, as a noun, to denote a power tool used to cut holes in stone, rocks (or) hard materials").

The more general sense for perforation given by the same dictionary is "action de percer quelque chose" = "action of piercing something"; but the original RTL interview is explicit that it's the rock-drilling sense that's at issue. Given this, both Henley and Beardsley seem to be guilty of a mistranslation: instead of perforating or perforation, they should be writing and talking about drilling or boring or something like that. Of course, "the Mexican rock-borers" or "the stone-drillers from the Mexico bar " don't quite have the eclat of "the perforating Mexicans" or "the Mexican perforation".

But I knew that much from the beginning. What still puzzles me is not lexical, but grammatical, and deals not with the translation, but the original French. I understand the basic contentful morphemes here, but everything about the way they're combined puzzles me.

First, why is Mexicaine singular and feminine? It refers to a group that is semantically plural and of unknown sex. If some singular group noun -- like groupe -- is assumed, what is it? Not groupe, which is masculine. In general, I'm not used to seeing a group of people referred to with a singular feminine form: la Française for "the French"? l'Américaine for "the Americans"? I don't think so.

Second, why the noun + prepositional phrase structure "la Mexicaine de perforation"? This is not NPR's "Mexican perforation", which would be "la perforation Mexicaine". It's not the Guardian's "perforating Mexicans", which would be "les Mexicaines perforatrices" (if they were women), or "les Mexicains perforateurs" (if they were male).

"The (female) Mexican of rock-drilling"? What's with that?

I'm exposing my ignorance here, but how else will I learn?

[Update: for the answer, see here. ]


[I can't resist adding my own hypothesis about this story, which is that these "Mexicans" are actually descendents of the Argentinian crew of the hijacked German submarine Der Aal, described in chapter 37 of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Here's Larry Daw's summary:

(37) Aboard a hijacked German submarine named Der Aal, the Argentine anarchists lazily plan a film version of Jose Hernandez's epic poem of the Argentine pampas, "Martin Fierro." Squalidozzi has been introduced to Gerhardt von Göll, also known by his nom de pègre, "Der Springer." He has sinister connections, through Spottbillingfilm AG in Berlin (another IG Farben outfit), from whom von Göll used to get cut rates on most of his film stock, especially the peculiar and slow-moving "Emulsion J," invented by Laszlo Jamf. Somehow, it was able to render human skin transparent, revealing the face just beneath the surface. It was used extensively in von Göll's immortal Alpdrücken. He also brought the Schwarzkommando to life in the Zone from out of a film for Operation Black Wing. One day they may shoot Squalidozzi's film on the Lüneberg Heath, where Rocket 00000 will be fired.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 21, 2004 07:14 AM