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French Slang by F. A.

1875

Reading the slang of a language is much like seeing the said language in its intellectual shirt-sleeves, off duty and taking its ease: one feels sure of detecting some essential characteristics of the people who speak it, and one turns over the pages of a slang dictionary expecting to recognize through its corruption and perversions the real nature of the people who have created it. French slang is no exception to this, theory: the two hundred and thirty double-columned pages of M. Larcher's Dictionnaire historique, etymologique et anecdotique de l'argot parisien tell us that the two grand sources and inspirations of our American slang are entirely wanting: there is not a humorous word or phrase from beginning to end; and hardly an instance of that incongruous exaggeration which is so salient a picture of our best-known and most original slang phrases. But, on the other hand, there is satire keen and fine on every page, a reckless, devil-may-care gayety, and throughout that mocking spirit which is so essentially French, making game alike of its own pain and that of others, and jeering always at the sight of an altar, never mind what may chance to be thereon, whether its own sacred things or those of others. Half the words in the book are quaint, grotesque phrasings of two ideas—ideas which most people on our side of the water are hardly inclined to joke about: one is the idea of death, and the other the frailty or falseness of women. One is specially struck by the wealth of words and the sameness of ideas, and, above all, by the quickwittedness that must belong to the people who can all catch a verbal allusion or suggestion as Anglo-Saxons might a plump, square hit. Sometimes a little unconscious pathos mingles with the mocking vein, for courage is moving when it is light-hearted. When a Frenchman tells you he has eaten nothing for two days, he adds, "Ça, ce n'est pas drôle" ("Now, that's no joke"). "Coeur d'artichaut" (a heart like an artichoke) is a felicitous expression for a person who has a succession of caprices and short-lived fancies; and there is something to the point in the satire which calls a surgical instrument "baume d'acier" (steel balm), or in the saying which mocks the credulous faith many people vaguely have in the efficacy of mineral waters: "Croyez cela et buvez de l'eau" (Believe that and drink water). There is something desperately significant in a language in which the lover who supports, protects and is deceived is called "le dessus," and the one who is favored at his expense "le dessous;" while the words "une femme," a woman, without qualification, are identical with frailty, and virtue, being the exception, demands an adjective to identify and proclaim it.

But there is something fine in the old French slang for the beginning of a war: "La danse va commencer" (The dance is about to begin, or the ball to open), and this dates from time immemorial: fighting has always been fun to Frenchmen. And there is something better still in the phrase which has become an official one, and has a proper technical meaning, with which the orders of a naval officer when sent on a difficult or dangerous expedition always end. "Debrouillez vous," meaning simply "Come well out of it." There must be stuff in men who can be trusted to always extricate themselves from a tight place with credit to their flag without more words than that simple exhortation. But one cannot say much for the morality of a country where, when any one says "la muette" (the dumb one), it is understood to mean conscience.

The instances are rare of resemblance between our slang phrases and theirs. Once in a while such a phrase as "Asseyezvous dessus" (literally, Sit on him) strikes one; but seldom. French slang teems with words that caricature and satirize personal defects, of which many are brutally coarse and not quotable. A comical expression for a sumptuous meal is a "Balthazar" (Belshazzar); and an unpleasant one for a coffin is a "boite a dominos" (a box of dominoes); a droll phrase for a plagiarist is "demarqueur de linge" (some one who alters the marking of another's linen). An interesting fact for the notice of physiologists is that when the officers of the engineer corps lose a comrade from insanity, they say, "Il s'est passé au dixième," in allusion to the fact that their loss in numbers from this cause amounts to practical decimation. This is attributed to the close study of the exact sciences. Under "femme du demi-monde" we find the origin of the phrase as created by A. Dumas fils: "Femme née dans un monde distingué, dont elle conserve les manières sans en respecter les lois" ("a woman belonging by birth to the upper class, the manners of which she retains, without respecting its laws"); but the present meaning is quite different from this, the phrase being now used as a euphuistic designation of a disreputable woman. French slang is saturated with irreverence. A common term for an emaciated-looking man is to call him an "ecce homo," and a "grippe Jésus" is thieves' slang for a gendarme.

The author of this dictionary evidently sympathizes with modern romanticists and light literature in general, for we find "académicien" defined as "littérateur suranné." One is always inclined to suspect sour grapes of giving the flavor to French sarcasm concerning the Academy, and is reminded of Piron's epigram in the shape of his own epitaph:

Ci git Piron qui ne fut rien,

Pas même académicien.

He wrote it, however, after his failure to obtain one of the much-coveted arm-chairs.

Our national vanity might be flattered by hearing that the phrase "L'oeil Américain" is used to describe an eye whose piercing vision is escaped by nothing, were we not told that it dates from the translation of Cooper's Leatherstocking tales into French, and has no reference, as "Natty Bumpo" would say, to "white gifts."

We find long, elaborate definitions of those much-disputed words, "chic," "cachet" and "chien," which, after all has been said, seem to take their meaning from the intention of those who use them and the perception of those who hear. "Chocnoso" is a delightfully expressive and absurd onomatopeic word to describe what is brilliant, startling and remarkable. The most striking feature of this elaborate book is that, although it contains almost words enough to constitute the vocabulary of a miniature language, yet the vast majority of these words would be as unintelligible to an educated Frenchman as to an Englishman. The bulk of French slang is never heard by the ears of educated people nor uttered by their lips: it circulates among the classes which create it; and the size of this dictionary is therefore not necessarily appalling to a Frenchman's eyes: it does not represent the corruption of the language, because slang does not taint the speech of those classes who control and make the standard speech and literature of the nation. If a dictionary of English slang were published now, how many young ladies and gentlemen of the educated classes, either in England or America, could profess honest and absolute ignorance of the meaning of most of the words? The answer to this question makes the moral of this paper.