Amuse-Bouche No. 27: Words à la Mode -- or how to be out of date fast

by Julia Frey

Cool expressions revolve faster than une porte à tambour (revolving door).

Does everybody read the newspaper with a yellow marker, or just me? At Sunday lunch, I regularly ask Nicole’s family to solve my word mysteries. But this week, before I even get out my (14-page) list, Nicole me pose une nouvelle colle (slang usage of colle, glue: asks me a new “sticky question”). “Veux-tu le sot-l’y-laisse?” I stare stupidly at the roast chicken, translating mentally: “Do you want the idiot leaves it there?” Quoi? The sot-l’y-laisse, she explains with a laugh, describes delicious but hard-to-find parts of the bird, tiny muscles on each side of the backbone. They’re called le sot-l’y-laisse because only an imbécile would leave them uneaten. In Nicole’s family, they fight over these morsels, found just above the croupion, and sometimes erroneously confused with it. The croupion, au contraire, is the fatty tissue holding a bird’s tail feathers. The verb, croupionner, can describe a woman who wiggles hers as she walks, presumably to attract attention. Ornithologists call the croupion the pygostyle, but hoi polloi call it the “Pope’s nose” or the “parson’s nose” depending, I suppose, on whether you prefer to insult Catholics or Protestants. So try asking for the pygostyle next Thanksgiving.

But I digress. After a character in the movie Amélie ("Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain" 2001) referred to the sot-l’y-laisse, spectators began wondering what it meant. The 18th century aristocratic culinary expression was reborn. Recipes, usually for the near-by muscles we call “chicken oysters”, appeared in a number of cooking publications, and in 2007, Le Figaro newspaper published a whole article on exactly what part of a roast bird sot-l’y-laisse refers to. Now there are at least eight restaurants called “Sot-l’y-laisse” !

This article is the first of an occasional series on what I call “mots-mode”, my own term for words à la mode—not like apple pie with ice cream (a non-French usage of à la mode), but like clothing styles, which are à la mode if they’re the latest thing. Normally not part of the ever innovative genius of argot (French slang), “mots-mode” are trite yet often paradoxically obscure words and expressions that spread like a virus for a few weeks or months, then fade. As I write, I’ll identify the culprits with the abbreviation mm (mot-mode), or worse, p (passé: out of style).

Just like clothing, mots-mode reflect one’s pretensions: political, economic, social or intellectual. Each clan— from gauchos (mm leftists) to taggeurs (mm graffiti artists) to bobos (p bohemian bourgeois)has its own markers of who’s in and who’s out. Since frequently the general public has no clue (p) what the expressions mean, people use them to show they’re branchouillés. Of course, I’m using branchouillé humorously here, as a pejorative variant of the word branché (plugged in, i.e., hip) to imply that the speaker is p, i.e., not really branché. And by now the word branché is definitely p.

Even the French make fun of their tics de langage. In January 2009, Le Figaro asked its readers to choose the most overused word of 2008. Nominations included subprime, buzz, Facebook, bling-bling, pirates, récession, développement durable (sustainable development), récolement (inventory—often in context of bankruptcy), Livret A (a savings account) and Grenelle. Of the 10 mm, let me point out in passing, six were English or bilingual. And nine had to do with either fame or money. Or both.

The last word, Grenelle, is a perfect mm because even if you’re French, it’s totally esoteric. It refers to the Accords de Grenelle, agreements resulting from government-vs.-labor negotiations during the 1968 turbulence, held at the Ministère du Travail on Rue de Grenelle in Paris. J’hallucine! (mm Give me a break!). Nobody can understand that! In 1968, half the population of France wasn’t even born yet. Later, in 2007, important meetings on long-term environmental policy became known (abusivement, since they weren’t held on Rue de Grenelle) as le Grenelle de l’Environnement. Now, by analogy, a Grenelle refers to any important French policy debate among multiple interest groups.

What is horripilant (mm irritating) is not so much the actual words (except perhaps bling-bling), as le caractère tyrannique with which they’re used everywhere, then never. They revolve faster than une porte à tambour (revolving door). You constantly used to hear Santiags— a fashionista (p) mot-mode for heavily decorated, expensive cowboy boots— meaning shoes -- in the expression traîner (to drag) ses Santiags (i.e., to hang out). So “il traîne ses Santiags au Buddha Bar” used to mean he frequented that bar scene. However, suddenly tongs (thongs or flip-flops -- the ones we used to call “go-aheads” because they fell off if you tried to walk backward) hit Paris like a plague of plastic locusts. Now il traîne ses tongs au Mood. Where it’s highly unlikely he’ll get served le sot-l’y-laisse.

©Julia Frey 2010

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  • Who is Carol.
  • Carol Gillott just sent me the Netflix description of Como Era Gostoso o Meu Frances. Thanks Carol!

    How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1973)
    Como Era Gostoso o Meu Frances

    In 16th century Brazil, while the French and Portuguese battle for possession of the territory, local Tupinamba Indians capture a Frenchman, believing him to be one of the Portuguese enemy. Despite his protests, the tribe prepares an elaborate ritual in which they plan to consume their hapless prisoner, hoping to appropriate their perceived foe's strength. Nelson Pereira dos Santos directs this oddly comic tale of culture clash and cannibalism.

    Cast: Ana Maria Magalhaes, Ana Maria Miranda
    Director: Nelson Pereira dos Santos
    Genre: Foreign
    Format: DVD and streaming
  • When your nephew answers, Catherine, will you let us know what he said?

    P.S.Luciano José de Mello just me sent a description of the Brazilian film "Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês" ( How my French was delightful): It's "about a German naufragé -- a German sailor, he came to Brazil in XVI century" I don't know if it's out on DVD ort not, or it if has subtitles. If anyone learns more, please post here !
  • oh now i have to email my teenage nephew in France and ask him what 's the popular terminology in the Riviera region...they love everything American, so it's probably just the same there as it is here...
  • Oh also, in French you can just say NERD.
  • Dear everybody,

    Mary Pereira says her students want to know how to say NERD in French. I've been sleuthing around for a few days now, and everybody seems to think there's no real French translation. "petit intello coincé" doesn't do it for me. One person commented: "the French are so nerdy they don't even have a word to say nerd..."

    It looks as if French nerds (and those who hate them) say GEEK. In English we seem to use both words in the same way. I liked this comprehensive description of American usage:

    "The words nerd, geek, dork, dweeb, etc. are first of all insults used primarily by teenagers and young adults to demean any of the members of their peer group whom they do not accept. These words existed before the era of universal ownership of computers. During that time, nerds and geeks were those who were wedded to their computer games and their joysticks. The only distinction between these words is the addition of the word computer: a computer nerd, a computer geek. One does not, however, say a computer dork/dweeb.

    These social outcasts are typically thought of as dull socially. They are often bookworms who like technical work and are generally introspective. This is a term coined in the 80's to describe intelligent but socially inept people. The term is often associated with Bill Gates.

    A nerd and a geek, as used in reference to computer and/or web fanatics, is an intellectually inclined person, especially one who is interested in scientific or technical subjects. S/He is a person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance. It was originally a deprecatory and contemptuous term, as I stated above, but in the 1990s, with the increase in popularity of computers and the frequency of accumulation of great wealth by computer entrepreneurs, it has come to be used with noticeable frequency by technically competent people to refer to themselves, ironically and sometimes proudly.

    While nerd and geek seem to have become associated with informatics, dork and dweeb retain their original connotation of social unacceptability."
  • That is really great, Julia. I teach French in Princeton High School, NJ and I love giving my students fun new things like that. I make up my own nonsensical phrases with similar alliteration or assonance. If this is post 27 do you have 26 other fun posts?
  • Hi Luciano,

    Can you give us exact details for the movie, and tell us if it's availavle with french or Englosh subtitles? I for one would like to see it.
  • The strange about French in Brazil, is the movie "Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês" ( How my French was delightful) was about a German naufrage.
  • ohmyword. thank youuuu for making me feel a bit more branchouille (haha)...tres interressant!
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