In praise of argot and French inventiveness

Slang is as old as the hills. Victor Hugo hated it, but G. K. Chesterton thought, “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.”

Published in 1918, L’argot des poilus; dictionnaire humoristique et philologique du langage des soldats de la grande guerre de 1914 records slang from the First World War. The word poilu (meaning hairy) is allegedly a term of endearment suggesting the French soldier’s typically rustic background and fondness for bushy moustaches.

The book – whose title translates as “Soldier’s slang: A humorous and philological dictionary of soldiers’ speech from the Great War of 1914” – was written by François Déchelette, a soldier himself, with a preface by the eminent historian, playwright, and journalist G. Lenôtre arguing somewhat pompously that soldiers’ speech should not be scorned:

“Everything that is mysterious in this invasion of neologisms must be dutifully collected and classified – as Gaston Paris [French writer and scholar] says of dialect words ‘in a great national herbarium’ – and we must give a small place in the Nation’s reliquary to the language spoken by its defenders; no one denies that it’s a green language [the French word vert can mean green, unripe, vigorous, and saucy]; but it is the green of the laurels with which victors were crowned in days of old.”

misusing-slangBy mid-1919, three excellent glossaries of poilu slang had been published. Déchelette’s volume was quickly followed by Albert Dauzat’s L’Argot des Poilus and then by Gaston Esnault’s Le Poilu tel qu’il se parle. The great lexicographer Eric Partridge reviewed them as part of his comprehensive and ever delightful Words, Words, Words! (1933). Partridge is still the standard bearer for English slang, as Henry Fowler is for English grammar and usage (pace the compilers of The Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors and The Oxford Guide to Style, which ought to be bedside reading for all journalists and bloggers).

The way words are used is endlessly fascinating and so, with scarcely a blush, a retooling of a few modern French expressions currently doing the rounds on the Internet, some erroneously translated and here improved. If slang is indeed metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry, the following may qualify:

Il me court sur le haricot.
Literally: He’s running on my bean.
He’s annoying me / getting on my wick.

Pédaler dans la semoule / la choucroute / le yaourt
To pedal in semolina / sauerkraut / yoghurt.
To be at a complete loss / to be all at sea.

L’habit ne fait pas le moine.
The habit doesn’t make the monk.
Appearances can be deceptive.

Avoir la taupe au guichet.
To have the mole at the counter.
To be desperate to use the bathroom.

Avoir le cul bordé de nouille.
To have one’s arse fringed with pasta.
To be born lucky.

Couper les cheveux en quatre.
To cut hair one’s hair in four.
To split hairs / to quibble.

Être dans de beaux / sales draps.
To be in beautiful / dirty sheets.
To be in a right mess.

En faire tout un fromage.
To make a cheese out of everything.
To make a mountain out of a molehill.

Prendre des vessies pour des lanternes.
To mistake bladders for lanterns.
To make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard.
It doesn’t break three legs of a duck.
It’s nothing to write home about.

C’est comme si on pissait dans un violon.
It’s like pissing in a violin.
It’s like pissing in the wind.


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