March 29, 2007

Playing in handkerchiefs

The fun thing about reading the news in a foreign language is that the tired and overused metaphors seem new and strange. In an interview published on Wednesday, Nicolas Sarkozy said of the French presidential election that

"Ça se jouera de toute façon dans un mouchoir de poche."

"It will play itself out in any case in a pocket handkerchief."

"Dans un mouchoir de poche" is a cliche that I didn't know, although it has 62,800 Google hits. Looking over some examples, I gather that users are focusing on the small space rather than the insalubrious residues. In any case, the things that can generally be found in the pocket handkerchiefs of La Francophonie are elections and sports events.

Over in Quebec, Le Devoir recently wrote that

Un mouchoir de poche. Voilà l'expression qu'a utilisée l'Agence France-Presse pour décrire la situation dans laquelle se retrouvent les principaux partis politiques du Québec à 48 heures d'un scrutin général qui s'annonce comme le plus serré depuis la Confédération.

A pocket handkerchief. That's the expression that Agence France Presse used to describe the situation in which the main political parties of Quebec find themselves, 48 hours before a general election that promises to be the tightest since the Confederation.

And in Francophone Africa, according to Le Monde,

Les Mauritaniens en sont fiers. Jamais, à les entendre, un pays arabe n'a connu un tel suspense pour une élection présidentielle. Alors qu'ils s'apprêtent à clore près de deux années de junte militaire et à élire, dimanche 25 mars, un nouveau président de la République, personne ne sait en effet qui va l'emporter. L'élection se jouera dans un mouchoir de poche.

The Mauritanians are proud. Never, you hear them say, has an arab country known such suspense in a presidential election. As they get ready to end nearly two years of military junta and to elect, Saturday March 25, a new president of the republic, no one really knowns who will win. The election will play itself out in a pocket handkerchief.

Turning to sports, a story in

Grégory Tafforeau, le capitaine lillois, attend, lui, une réaction. "Tout se joue dans un mouchoir de poche, sachant que nous avons gaspillé pas mal de points en route. Nous avons sans doute également grillé notre dernier joker face au Mans.

As for Gregory Tafforeau, Lille's captain, he expects a response. "It all plays itself out in a pocket handkerchief, considering that we've wasted plenty of points along the way. We surely also burnt our last joker against Mans."

I gather, by the way, that burning (cooking? roasting?) a joker is something like wasting a trump card, given other sports-figure quotes like

On perd à la maison, ce qui veut dire que l'on grille notre dernier joker.

We lose at home, that means that we burn our last joker.

Jokers aside, individual as well as team sports can be played in pocket handkerchiefs:

Cinq filles (Seebohm, Manaudou, Ito, Coughlin et Nakamura) peuvent viser l’or : « Ça va se jouer dans un mouchoir de poche », prédit Lucas.

Five girls (Seebohm, Manudou, Ito, Coughlin and Nakamura) can aim at the gold: "It's going to play itself out in a pocket handkerchief", predicts Lucas.

I don't think that English has any current clichés for close contests that are this silly. (Though "decided by a nose" has an ironically close association, even if horses' noses are the wrong kind to put into handkerchiefs.) But I'm probably just failing to remember all the silly English-language metaphors for close contests, since the literal meaning of familiar expressions gets pretty well bleached out.

[By the way, Radio France Internationale undertook in 2006 to explain "dans un mouchoir de poche" to a puzzled African reader, in the context of the last World Cup, where apparently many matches were played in handkerchiefs.]

[Update -- Martyn Cornell wrote to explain that

There is a rule in the European-wide televised "silly games" contest Jeux Sans Frontieres that each team has a Joker card which they can play at the start of the game in which they believe they will do best, and which will double whatever points they score in that game - since you could only use your joker once, doubtless this gave the idea to the French that once played it was "grille", though I don't recall an equivalent expression in English, we would just say "used".

and in French


[And Mark McConville sent a response to my rash assertion that "I don't think that English has any current clichés for close contests that are this silly":

A popular one here in the UK over the past few years is "squeaky bum time", used first by Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in 2003 to describe the culmination of a closely run football season. It's even in the dictionary now:

And this metaphor has already moved into the political arena too:

OK, I guess I should have known that in the silly expression area, the British take second place to no one.]

[And Bruce Rusk pointed out another one, which is so obvious that I didn't think of it:

Among the "silly English-language metaphors for close contexts" (lovely Freudian slip!): "dead heat." How strange that must seem the first time one hears it (even taking "heat" as a race).

(Oops, I've corrected "contexts" to "contests" in the body of the post...]

[Kenny Easwaran writes:

I was just catching up on my New Yorker reading, and finished reading an article from a few weeks ago about the history of dueling. Anyway, having already read your recent post about funny French slang for a close match, I was surprised to notice that the phrase may have originated from dueling. The relevant sentence is "[pistols] inspired such quaint variations as the duel au mouchoir, in which duellists stood close enough to hold opposite corners of a handkerchief."

The sense here doesn't seem to convey anything about a really close match, but perhaps there are some intermediate usages that make the transition.

I've added a current French political cartoon that provides a sort of cultural bridge to the handkerchief-duel image...

But Michael McWilliams writes to suggest that the origins of the phrase are in the concept of many contestants finishing a race together within a very small space:

according to the "Dictionnaire des expressions et locutions" : "dans un mouchoir de poche" was first used in 1909 in commenting the finish of a cycling race (quite possibly the Tour de France, something of a national institution) noting as its purpose : "d´veloppe l'image d'un groupe homogène massé sur une surface réduite".

Finally, Jim Gordon writes that

I don't think that in 50-odd years, I've ever seen a Français(e) blow his/her nose in a pocket handkerchief, which is usually decorative. I DO remember seeing folks folding things up in them, or using one to help someone remove a lash from her eye. The French use a mouchoir de papier or a finger on the opposite nostril. In the context, you may be amused that having a stuffy nose in Spanish is to be constipado.

Remembering Brit understatement, squeaky bums come from being in a situation where, as US military persons commonly say, there is a high pucker factor. Fear leads some folks to lose control, and some to clench the procto muscles. Flatulence then moves from the bass register to a soprano squeak. ManU's Alex Ferguson is notorious for hyperbolic pronouncements, and thus, a tense season becomes dangerous.

I had planned to leave the proctological details to the reader's imagination, but there is a socio-lexicographical point here, I guess: Americans are unlikely to be tempted to think of the "pucker factor" in the context of an election, no matter how close.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 29, 2007 01:04 AM