July 15, 2005

Wrong and wronger

In response to this morning's post about the LA Times' article on French food slang, Chris Waigl wrote from Paris that

I loved your post about that French food slang article. The amount of stereotyping of France and the French that goes on in the English-speaking press (worst of all in the US, I'm afraid) is something I find quite disconcerting.

Well, I guess there's enough stereotyping back in the other direction to balance the books... but the key thing in this case, as Chris goes on to explain, is that the "list of so-called French slang is une vraie catastrophe."

Chris' critique in detail (the list she's talking about is here):

Some of Leslie Brenner's idioms are either archaic or so rare I've never heard of them. This doesn't mean she must have invented them, but I imagine a number might be regional south-western dialectal (since she writes her in-laws live there), and others come from highly literary reference books.

If I had to pull an opinion out of thin air, I'd think that English has a greater number of widely used food-related idioms. (And then there's the difference between "idiom" and "slang" -- many of her examples aren't slang by any stretch.)

Some of the more egregious misrepresentations:

- "Je pourrais manger un curé frotté d'ail" -- very cute, but the only GHit I get apart from Brenner's article is from a discussion forum where this is presented as a _rare_ expression. And no one would be surprised that a slang term expressing hunger would mention eating or food. The French people on the street would say they could eat "un bœuf", "un cochon entier" and, like in English, "un cheval". The only interesting part I can see is the vague reference to the real slang expression "bouffeur de curé", referring to a somewhat outspoken proponent of radical anti-clericalism. (I haven't looked it up, but it must date from 1905 or thereabouts.)

- "Oh purée!" -- this only seems to be about mashed potatoes. The exclamation is a prudish reshaping of "Putain!". Just like saying "frigging" instead of "fucking".

- "Tomber dans les pommes" -- I admit most speakers do think that this refers to apples, but it's a relatively well-known folk etymology, your basic ex-eggcorn. The original expression employs "pâmes", from "se pâmer", i.e. to pass out. "Les pâmes" is now archaic and signified the state of unconsciousness.

- "Il n'est pas dans son assiette" -- yes, "assiette" means plate, but that's not the sense of it here. The word derives from the verb "s'asseoir", to sit down, and refers to the way someone or something sits, or is placed (see also "this doesn't sit well with me"). Someone who "n'est pas dans son assiette" is temporarily floundering, not feeling quite stable, a bit off-track and out of it. "Assiette" as a technical term denotes a number of different things, from the way a train "sits" on the rails or the top-soil on whatever is below, to the the figure for your annual income that serves as a base to asses taxes.

- "Tu me fais tourner le sang en boudin" -- I am more familiar with blood turning to water (eau) or bleach (eau de Javel).

Verlan, by the way, is not recent, but it is becoming more widespread. Even Le Monde, at least in opinion pieces or big "society" panorama articles, uses Renoi (verlan of "noir") and Rebeu (verlan of "beur", which is verlan of "arabe"). Words like "meuf" (femme) or "keuf" (flic) are used nearly everywhere in the informal register. The real inhabitants of the banlieues tend to move away from the mainstreamed verlan terms and invent new ones.

Oh well.

As another example of national (and gender) stereotypes in the American press, Chis offers this:

Only yesterday, in a NYT review by William Grimes of Joan DeJean's "The Essence of Style" on Louis XIV's world (he claims she is an eggcorn user, thus my interest) I found this little example of casual stereotyping:

It all seems so contemporary. Parisian women submitted to the cruel attentions of a hairdresser known as Monsieur Champagne, who rewarded his faithful clients by insulting them to their faces or simply walking out in a huff, leaving his work half done.

Contemporary? I can testify to the fact that the 21st century Parisian woman's relationship with her hairdresser is nothing like that.

In Grimes' defense, it's possible that he was stereotyping New York City women (and their hairdressers) rather than Parisian women.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 15, 2005 03:26 PM