July 15, 2005

She's working from her coffeepot

While Pascale Riché was explaining at length about Tocqueville and the importance of community in the U.S. and the bond created by children, he surmised that the American reporter who interviewed him about his block party was thinking "I wish he'd stop blathering on with his pop sociology... When is he going to tell me that he's French and that he loves food?"

Well, here's another piece of evidence that he was right. Leslie Brenner's Bastille Day story in the LA Times is all about how French people's "love for food is equal only to their love for slang, and French slang, to an amazing degree, is food related".

To an "amazing degree"? Well, amazement is in the amygdala ("almond") of the beholder, I guess. Brenner may be a big cheese in the LA Times food section, but I'm tempted to say that as a matter of quantitative fact, her claim about the role of food in French slang is nuts. What's my beef? I've got two problems with this pea-brained farrago of cultural stereotypes and Whorfian clichés: first, much of every language's slang comes from words for familiar things, and Benner gives no evidence that food is higher on the list for the French than it is for anyone else. Second, one of the most striking things about recent French slang is the role of verlan, which has nothing whatever to do with food.

Anyhow, Brenner gives 40 examples of French food slang [or really, in most cases, food-related idioms, as Chris Waigl pointed out in response to this post]. They're cute -- though my favorite is "Je pourrais manger un curé frotté d'ail" (="I could eat a parish priest rubbed with garlic", meaning "I'm very hungry"), which is an idiomatic phrase about hunger, but precisely not food-related slang, it seems to me.

But really, anyone whose command of their native language is worth a hill of beans should be able to think of a similar number of similar food-slang examples in about 3 minutes. So starting the timer:

small potatoes, a hot potato, cheesecake, a bean counter, have a bun in the oven, freeze your buns off, a piece of cake, easy as pie, that's the icing on the cake, a fine kettle of fish, toffee-nosed, she's a peach, in a pickle, in cherry condition, the car's a lemon, a smart cookie, a tough cookie, a tomato can, hotdogging, like white on rice, put some mustard on it, the rotten apple that spoils the barrel, like a turd in the punchbowl, in apple-pie order, a plum assignment, that old chestnut, (the endearments pumpkin, cupcake, sugar, honey, lambchop), he's baked, stewed to the gills, out of his gourd, a rhubarb, grilling a suspect, to waffle, ham-fisted, ham-handed, mutton-chop whiskers, he's a marshmallow, upper crust,


[LA Times link via email from Mark Seidenberg]

[Update: perlentaucher.de points out that the Guardian's survey has determined that 14 of the world's 50 best restaurants are in England, and 10 more in the U.S., vs. only 10 in France (might the distribution of their 600 experts surveyed might have had something to do with the results?) Anyhow, Wolfram Siebeck's description of his meal in the Guardian's #1 restaurant, the Fat Duck, near London, makes it clear that no fair-minded person can accuse the French of an unusual level of concern with food. Snail porridge? Sardine-on-toast sorbet? Lime tea mousse in liquid nitrogen? Mustard ice? Now I know what Monty Python have been up to recently...

In my limited experience, the English high-concept vocabulary for food and wine is much more elaborate (and more pretentious) than its French counterpart. I'm reminded again of an experience

at dinner in an upscale Los Angeles restaurant with Jean-Roger Vergnaud. The waiter delivered a long, poetic description of a wine that Jean-Roger had chosen, including the phrase "with a hint of earth in the nose." Jean-Roger paused for a carefully calculated moment, and then pointed to another choice. "And what about this one? Does it also have dirt on its nose?"

In fairness to Leslie Brenner, she's listing ordinary-language slang expressions dealing with food. But I'm not convinced that there is any linguistic register in which the French are in fact unusually preoccupied with food-related terminology.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 15, 2005 07:37 AM