September 12, 2007

Connard de flic

According to Emil Steiner in the Washington Post (OFF/beat, 9/10/2007):

Perhaps inspired by McDonald's assault on the Oxford English Dictionary, a French police union is suing one of its country's most respected dictionaries over its definition of "police." The Unsa-police union has asked for a court order to force Le Petit Robert to remove a slang reference from its 2008 edition that defines their profession as "connard de flic" (bloody pig). In solidarity, a second union is calling for a boycott of the dictionary and Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has disapproved of the editors decision saying she "deplored" the use of that parlance, popular among immigrant youth. But if those words of disapproval aren't enough, perhaps France's best solution would be to simply confiscate and burn all copies containing that virulent reference? Not only would that eradicate the word, but also give those who once used it a new found respect for their government's proactive understanding.

If you've ever read a dictionary, then that clicking sound is probably the needle of your BS detector bumping up against its limiting peg.

And in fact, a quick scan of for "connard" turns up a very different story. As explained in the Nouvel Observateur, for example,

Pour illustrer le terme "rebeu", le dictionnaire cite une phrase de l'auteur de polars Jean-Claude Izzo: "T'es un pauvre petit rebeu qu'un connard de flic fait chier, c'est ça !". Alliance considère qu'il s'agit là d'un "outrage fait à la police nationale et aux policiers".

To exemplify the term "rebeu", the dictionary cites a phrase by the crime-fiction author Jean-Claude Izzo: "You're a poor little<rebeu> that a <connard de flic> pisses off, that's it!" The [main union of the national police] believes that this constitutes an "outrage to the national police and to policemen".

So the controversy has got nothing whatever to do with the "definition of 'police'" -- the contested item is an example sentence used in the entry for a completely different term, rebeu,which itself is double-verlan for Arab (Arabbeurrebeu). (No one seems to be complaining about the "pauvre petit rebeu" part, oddly enough.)

Misrepresentation of lexicographical practice aside, this brings up the puzzling question of judging offensiveness across languages and cultures. As far as I know,flic is informal but in itself entirely inoffensive, about at the level of English cop, and not at all like pig. And as for connard, it was the French Word of the Day over at in February of 2005, where it was defined as

un connard
(familiar) - idiot, jerk, schmuck
C'est un vrai connard ! - He's a real jerk!
Related: une connarde / une connasse (familiar) - bitch, cow

This is about what what I had inferred, both in terms of meaning and in terms of degree of offensiveness, from hearing and seeing the word used. And idiot, jerk and schmuck are not words of praise, but they're not taboo words either, and the quote from Izzo seems pretty clearly to refer to a particular policeman, not to the police in general.

On that basis, it's hard to see why the police union got upset, though perhaps they were upset already and just looking for a hook to hang it on. Then again, maybe I'm wrong about how (in)offensive connard might be. The Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française has no entry for it, but there is one for con:

(3)*III. CON, CONNE n. XIIe siècle. Du latin cunnus, « sexe de la femme ».
1. N. m. Vulg. Organe sexuel de la femme. 2. N. Fig. et très vulg. Personne sottement passive, imbécile, idiote, par comparaison dépréciative, héritée de la tradition latine, avec l'activité virile. Quel con ! Quelle conne ! Il s'est conduit comme un con. Faire le con. Une histoire à la con, particulièrement stupide. Expr. d'argot militaire. Mort aux cons ! Adjt. Il est trop con. Elle est vraiment con, ou conne. Expr. Con comme la lune. Bien que cet emploi figuré apparaisse dans les correspondances littéraires dès le XIXe siècle et que l'usage parlé s'en soit fort répandu, ne doit être employé que dans une intention de vulgarité appuyée.

The usage warning is in boldface in the original: "Although this figurative meaning appears in literary correspondence of the 19th century, and the spoken use is widespread, [this word] should not be used without a specific intention of vulgarity."

Sebastien Fontenelle at Vive le Feu suggests another set of English counterparts for "connard de X", as a way of translating into French a phrase from the life of Johnny Rotten. And there's some useful discussion of translation options for "connard de flic" by Billy Beccles on the message board -- he settles on "twat of a cop".

This seems to me to put too much emphasis on the etymological meaning of connard, but anyhow, I can't imagine a police union in the U.S. getting bent out of shape over a dictionary entry for a slang term for an ethnic minority X, that quoted a piece of detective-novel dialogue along the lines of "you're just a poor little X, pissed off by some twat of a cop" (and much less, "some jerk of a cop", which might be closer in meaning and tone). The Committee for X-American Understanding, now, that would be a different matter.

For lagniappe, consider that the feminine form connasse, which I gather remains quite a bit more offensive than connard in France, has turned into a common slang ethnonym for Cajuns, viewed positively at least by some. The wikipedia entry for coon-ass says:

Socioeconomic factors appear to influence how Cajuns are likely to view the term: working-class Cajuns tend to regard the word "coonass" as a badge of ethnic pride; whereas middle- and upper-class Cajuns are more likely to regard the term as insulting or degrading, even when used by fellow Cajuns in reference to themselves.

Despite an effort by Cajun activists to stamp out the term, it can be found on T-shirts, hats, and bumperstickers throughout Acadiana, the 22-parish Cajun homeland in south Louisiana.

[Or maybe not -- John Cowan observes that

Research has since disproved Domengeaux's "conasse" etymology. Indeed, photographic evidence shows that Cajuns themselves used the term prior to the time in which "conasse" allegedly morphed into "coonass."[1] As a result, the origin of "coonass" remains uncertain.

[1] Shane K. Bernard, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), pp. 96-97.

Bernard shows a 1943 picture of a C-47 transport plane nicknamed the Cajun Coonass, which does refute the theory that the term was invented by continental French speakers to refer to Cajun G.I.s after D day. But if the etymology involves con(n)asse, it seems more plausible that the development took place in Louisiana among the Cajuns themselves, and the 1943 picture doesn't affect that possibility one way or the other. Still, it's clear that the origin of coonass is at best uncertain.]

[John O'Toole wrote to correct my translation of the French idiom "faire shier", literally "cause to defecate", which I rendered as "scares shitless", whereas it should have been "pisses off". Obviously, I need to improve my understanding of the the cross-cultural associations of excessive vs. inadequate solid vs. liquid bodily wastes. This wouldn't be the first time that high-school French let me down.]

[Alex Price offers some additional information about the tone of the idioms involved:

I enjoyed your blog entry on the "connard de flic" controversy. My only demurral would be that in my opinion "connard" is quite a bit stronger than you suggest. In fact, I would rate it more offensive than "con," and Le Petit Robert agrees with me: "con" is just labeled "Familier," and in most contexts just means "idiot" or "jerk"; but "connard" is labeled "Vulgaire et méprisant." The contempt that it conveys is what makes a much nastier word than "con." The best American English translation that I can think of is "asshole," which can also be very strong. In an American context, "twat" has always sounded a little comical to me, and so is not as good a translation, despite the referential correspondence with the French.

Also, "faire chier" doesn't quite mean "piss off." Le Robert gives "embêter" and "ennuyer" as synonyms, which is right. For me the expression "Ah, tu fais chier!" is about equivalent to "You're a pain in the ass!" To annoy or to bother someone is not quite the same as to piss them off, although one often leads to the other!


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 12, 2007 08:18 AM