Dictionnaire de la langue verte.

Alfred Delvau (1825-1867) packed a lot of writing into his 42 years, including his compilation of French slang, the Dictionnaire de la langue verte (1866), whose second (1883) edition, revised by Gustave Fustier, is available at Project Gutenberg. It is, of course, a lot of fun to look through the lively vocabulary, but I am going to cite here an eloquent passage from the preface:

Puisque j’en suis au chapitre des étonnements, je dois prémunir mes lecteurs contre celui qu’ils éprouveront certainement à rencontrer çà et là, dans ce Dictionnaire de la Langue verte, des mots auxquels le Dictionnaire de l’Académie a donné asile, — comme on donne asile aux gueux et aux vagabonds. Ces mots sont considérés par lui comme bas et populaciers, et il en défend l’usage aux gens du bel air, aussi bégueules que lui: à cause de cela, ils me revenaient de droit, puisque je fais le Glossaire de la langue du peuple parisien, le Compendium du slang. La langue verte, au rebours de la langue académique, se compose précisément des mots qui ne s’écrivent pas, mais qui se parlent à certains étages de la société.

Or, je suis de ceux qui prétendent que «toutes paroles se laissent dire et tout pain mangier», — avec d’autant plus de raison que les expressions proscrites comme indignes, condamnées comme shocking par le Dictionnaire de l’Académie, sont du meilleur français que je connaisse, d’un français plus étymologique, plus rationnel, plus expressif, plus éloquent que celles auxquelles ladite Académie a accordé droit de cité, — le français de Jean de Meung et de Guillaume de Lorris, de François Villon et de François Rabelais, de Philippe Desportes et de Bonaventure Des Périers, d’Henri Estienne et de Clément Marot, de Michel Montaigne et de Mathurin Régnier, d’Agrippa d’Aubigné et de Brantôme, de Froissart et d’Amyot, etc. Il paraît qu’il est de bon goût, dans les hautes régions, de renier ses ancêtres et de mentir à ses origines; les gens distingués se croiraient déshonorés, — savants et gandins, — en parlant la langue des petites gens, qui, cependant, sont les plus fidèles gardiens et les plus rigoureux observateurs de la tradition. Oui, il faut que les gens distingués en prennent leur parti: le peuple est le Conservatoire du vrai langage.

Google Translate does a good enough job that I don’t feel like taking the trouble to translate the whole passage, but I especially love these bits: “the expressions proscribed as unworthy, condemned as ‘shocking,’ by the Academy’s dictionary are the best French that I know, a French more etymological, more rational, more expressive, more eloquent than those the Academy has given the keys of the city” and “the people are the Conservatory of the real language.” You tell ’em, M. Delvau!


  1. Grand merci!

  2. who are the gens du bel air? gt not helpful

  3. It must mean “the upper crust”, at least in terms of education and (alleged) good taste.

  4. The page number XV snuck into your text.

  5. Matthew Roth says

    I love this. For the most part, only vocabulary is tricky. (I need to build my vocabulary…reading, TV and film, and listening to music seem to help.) But occasionally, he uses “en” idiomatically, and it’s seemigly impossible to tell as an L2 if that’s just required, if the de + nom is somewhere else-preceding the verb greatly or even folloing it somewhere- and whatever other reason. Using “y” and “en” in speech is hard, and I want to work on this as a grad student. It’s cleaner to use the pronouns…

  6. David Marjanović says

    Using “y” and “en” in speech is hard, and I want to work on this as a grad student.

    They’re much easier if you take a detour through German, corresponding pretty well to davon and the other replacements of preposition + neuter pronoun. (…But not too literary German. In il en défend l’usage, written German would resort to the genitive, es verteidigt deren Verwendung…)

  7. marie-lucie says

    MRoth: en

    – Normal use (if rather old-fashioned):
    Ces mots sont considérés par lui comme bas et populaciers, et il en défend l’usage aux gens du bel air (= il défend l’usage de ces mots)
    ‘These words are considered by him as low-class, and he forbids the use of them by the upper crust.’

    – Semi-idiomatic:
    il faut que les gens distingués en prennent leur parti
    ‘The upper crust must resolve to accept the situation.’

    (prendre (son, etc) parti de faire … ‘to resolve/to resign (oneself) to (do, etc)’ even though reluctantly)

    – Idiomatic use:
    Puisque j’en suis au chapitre des étonnements
    ‘Since I have reached the chapter on surprises …’

    Compare: Je suis au chapitre … ‘I am on the chapter …’

  8. Matthew Roth says

    Merci ! But really, you found examples of precisely my struggle. This might be a good pedagogical exercise for me to remember.

  9. The page number XV snuck into your text.

    Thanks, I deleted it. (Even editors need editors!)

  10. M Roth: Glad to be of service! As a native speaker and former teacher, I hope I can identify points of difficulty!

  11. Vive Les Visiteurs et aux gueux!

  12. Would the gens du bel air be roughly equivalent to the 200 families of the period, or is the latter strictly economic?

  13. — il faut que les gens distingués en prennent leur parti
    ‘The upper crust must resolve to accept the situation.’

    I don’t read anything about accepting in this phrase. I read it as:
    The upper classes must conclude as to what, academic or street, constitutes the “true” language…

  14. marie-lucie says

    Brett: The phrase les gens du bel air is more or less the same as les gens distingués which occurs just below. These people would lack for nothing in the way of money and education, without necessarily being among the very richest (to be too rich is considered vulgar in French society, so the “200 families” might be envied but not admired).

    Hozo: You don’t “read anything about accepting” because you probably don’t know the phrase prendre son parti de …, which cannot be translated literally in English but does have the connotation of deliberately accepting/agreeing with something you don’t approve of, because you don’t really have a choice in the matter. So you decide to stop worrying about it and “move on”.

    The point is not to make a choice between “academic” and “street”, but to agree to allow the inclusion of “street” language into one’s personal linguistic “repertory”.

  15. I know very well the expression. I find it presumptuous and not a little meprisant to assume otherwise.


    Please read response #5 and you will note that I’m hardly the only one who finds your interpretation fallacious.

    As to your less than polite insistence on my “move on”….bonnes fetes but don’t avaler trop des couleuvres!

  16. Hozo: Thanks for the link. It is true that ONE person (no. 5) had a different interpretation from mine, but the others did not. That one person confused the two syntactic uses of prendre … parti …, as another commenter explained.

    “Move on”: I see that I am responsible for a misunderstanding and I apologize for it. The paragraph in which I used these words was ambiguous as I used “you” both as an address form (to you, Hozo) and then as an equivalent to French “on” later. So I did not mean to tell you, Hozo, to “move on”, but I restated the author’s opinion that whoever cannot prevent the inevitable should accept it and “move on”, a phrase which seems very popular these days.

  17. Hozo: You may have encountered the expression, but that does not mean that you understand its meaning. In your link, it is true that ONE person agrees with you, but others don’t. The expression can be ambiguous because the words prendre … parti… are used in two slightly different syntactic contexts and some people don’t seem to notice the difference:

    prendre parti pour … ‘to take the side of …, to adopt the point of view of …” which is what no. 5 understands (like you) but which is not what is used in the text;

    prendre (son, ton, etc) parti de (faire, etc) … ‘to resolve to accept (some undesired course of action) which is what is in the text.

    Move on: I am sorry if I seemed to suggest that you, as a person, needed to “move on”. I realize that the paragraph I wrote was ambiguous because of my use of “you” in different sentences: at first I used “you” to address you yourself, but later I used it as an equivalent of French “on” (a pronoun sorely lacking in English), addressed to no one in particular but expressing a general opinion, here the idea that the writer of the original text expected the “upper crust” (using the term loosely) should stop worrying about using only ‘proper’ language and accept that “low language” has its place in their own speech.

  18. I am sorry for my two almost duplicate posts replying to Hozo. After some time the first one did not seem to have registered, so I rewrote it, but the second one showed up right away and I saw that the first one had now registered. I will have to be more patient!

  19. condamnées comme shocking par le Dictionnaire de l’Académie

    I was a bit surprised to see this because of course nowadays the Academie is mainly known for fighting a battle against English words appearing in French (“le weekend” etc). Is the use of “shocking” here a prod at the Academie for this?

  20. marie-lucie says

    away: Note that shocking is in italics, so the author (who displays an excellent mastery of fairly high-level French) is indeed prodding the Académie. But I was surprised to see slang without italics. Perhaps it is used with a slightly different meaning in French than the word argot.

    As for le weekend, it has a legitimate use in France, with a meaning different from la fin de semaine ‘the week’s end’. I wrote about it here a few years ago.

    Although the French work or school week increasingly does not include Saturday, it certainly did when I was young. La fin de la semaine ‘the end of the week’ meant Friday and Saturday, the last workdays in the week. You could (and still can) arrange with someone to meet en fin de semaine, for instance, if you want to have lunch together Friday or Saturday as a break during your work day. So le weekend was borrowed from English to mean Saturday and Sunday, the two days of leisure enjoyed by those who do not work on Saturday. But in Canada, where educated francophones avoid English words (so as not to be swamped by them), while their work life follows Anglo-American practices, weekend was translated by la fin de semaine, literally “the week’s end”.

  21. marie-lucie says

    ajay: The Académie’s efforts to limit the influx of English words and their recommendations for French alternatives fall upon deaf ears for the majority of French people, as you can see from a glance at (among other things) the covers of many French magazines. You can also hear it in the casual speech of many people, although in many cases you might not recognize them because their sounds are entirely French.

  22. English borrowed half of its vocabulary from French, so it should be OK for French to borrow half from English.

  23. SFR: You are not the first to suggest this tit-for-tat exchange.

    The French borrowings into English occurred because England was conquered and dominated by a French-speaking aristocracy (the Normans, themselves former Scandinavians) which eventually merged with the rest of the people, linguistically and otherwise, so that English was changed but survived, often using both native and borrowed words as near-synonyms.

    The current situation in France is quite different. English derives its prestige from American popular culture as shown in films and television and propagated also by translations from the American press, rather than from the presence of actual American English speakers within the population. Most French people are taught English in schools, with mixed results, and like to display their knowledge of the language, however limited.

    Things are quite different in Canada. Until recent decades the area with a French-speaking majority was still dominated by an English-speaking administration, and English was also the language of industry, so French speakers working in industry (most of whom had very limited education in French) ended up adopting many English words they learned from their English-speaking supervisors, resulting in a mixed-language dialect called “joual”, which is now frowned upon. Since the 1960’s the Québec government has greatly emphasized public education in French and set up the “Office de la langue française” as a watchdog over the language and creator of new words. French speakers in Canada, many of whom are bilingual, are proud of their knowledge of “good” French and do their best to avoid English words.

  24. legal doublets, words used together as a pair in legalese. some but not all are norman/saxon pairs, like acknowledge and confess or care and attention, presumably in the hope that if you didn’t understand one word you would understand the tiother.

    i understand joual to mean the quebec variety of french, however many loanwords it has at a particular time.

  25. JC: legal doublets indeed are an example of the language mix, where both synonyms are used in order to be understood by everyone.t There are many other cases where the native English and the French word are used in different contexts or registers, as in the animal/meat words (pig or hog / pork etc) discussed by characters in Ivanhoe.

    i understand joual to mean the quebec variety of french, however many loanwords it has at a particular time.

    It is (or was) ONE Québec variety, characteristic of industry workers in Montréal, but not spoken outside of that environment (e.g. in the city of Québec itself, or in rural areas).

    As usual, Étienne would be the right person to comment.

  26. i meant to say montreal, not quebec. per wp: While joual is often considered a sociolect of the Québécois working class, that perception is outdated. Both the upward socio-economic mobility among the Québécois, and a cultural renaissance around joual connected to the Quiet Revolution in the Montreal East-End have resulted in joual being spoken by people across the educational and economic spectrum. Today, many Québécois who were raised in Quebec during the last century (command of English notwithstanding) can understand and speak at least some joual.

  27. ə de vivre says

    I’ve never gotten the impression that joual is defined by its English loans, and definitely not to the point of mixed language territory like chiac. I associate thoroughly mixed franglais with educated Plateau hipsters, who are defo not speaking joual, more than with mononcs in Hochelaga. But, that’s just anecdata. The section “Quelques répliques” of the Wikipedia article on the (once) scandalously joual play Les Belles-sœurs doesn’t have any English loanwords I can see, though.

  28. David Marjanović says

    presumably in the hope that if you didn’t understand one word you would understand the tiother.

    Are you sure? I’ve understood such expressions as cease and desist as covering subtle distinctions that become important in law (in this case “stop doing what you’re doing – and then don’t start again afterwards”, where using only one of the two parts would create loopholes). They’re not always pairs either.

  29. the chiac samples at wp.en look more like spanglish, portunhol, etc. code switching, but not yet grammaticalized into a mixed language.

    update: no, desist has always meant cease per oed.

  30. I actually answered the question about joual almost exactly a year ago right here:


  31. Ha! Here‘s the direct link to the comment.

  32. In the case of “cease and desist,” they are clearly synonymous; and yet there is also a long-established legal tradition of interpreting them as meaning different things, in the way David Marjanović states. I suspect that interpretation originated as a legal folk etymology for the seemingly redundant doublet, and I think that “desist” is now used on it’s own in the separate sense with some regularity by Anglophone lawyers.

    The emphatic use of and conjunctions where some other form of coordination might make more sense is characteristically west Germanic. As a rhetorical device it comes in (at least) two varieties. There can be coordination of two seemingly redundant synonyms, as in “cease and desist.” However there is also the emphatic use of and where or would be more logical. A well-known example of this would be “Nacht und Nebel,” made infamous by the Nazis. (The phrase originated in Das Rheingold, where it seems to be a more straightforward example of ν δι δυοῖν. The Nazi usage is different though, meaning not foggy night but fog or night.)

  33. I guess the distinction between assault and battery has a similar origin?

  34. David Marjanović says

    As far as I can tell, my interpretation of desist came from its Latin etymology.

    there is also the emphatic use of and where or would be more logical.

    Ah, but the German oder doesn’t generally mean OR – it means XOR. Many uses of or have to be translated as und/oder. Bei Nacht oder Nebel would generally be taken to mean “in night or in fog, but not in both at the same time”.

  35. If course! It had never occurred to me before, but the fact that the original west Germanic or word was an exclusive or (Old English oþþe being parent to both either and or, for example) goes a long way toward explaining why the rhetorical device with and is common.

  36. marie-lucie says

    Nacht und Nebel

    As a teenager I saw a French documentary on the horrors of the Nazi period, called Nuit et Brouillard (translating the German phrase). I understood that it meant ‘in the night and/or in the fog’ (meaning the darkness – literal and figurative – into which people were made to disappear).

  37. @marie-lucie: That would presumably be this film, directed by Alain Resnais.

    Apparently, it is not clear how the name “Nacht und Nebel” became attached to the famous decrees signed by Field Marshall Keitel. (Keitel’s signatures on the Night and Fog Decrees, along with his endorsement of the Commando Order and the Commissar Order, were the most important pieces of evidence that led to his death sentence at Nuremberg.) There are apparently no written records of the terminology being used before 1945, although referring to the decrees by the “Nacht und Nebel” name was well established by the time of the first war crimes trials. A transcription of the original German text of the decrees (taken from the U.S. Army archives, I believe) can be found here.

  38. David Marjanović says

    Eine Nacht-und-Nebel-Aktion is anything done very quickly and in maximum obscurity, bei Nacht und Nebel – both night and fog rather than just one.

  39. marie-lucie says

    Brett, thank you for the article. Yes, that’s the film I saw. As a young teenager at the time it made a very deep impression on me.

  40. While reading a bit more about the implementation of the Night and Fog Decrees, I learned a couple interesting things. There are Nazi records from late in the war (1945) that identify people the security services had disappeared with a notation “NN” beside their names. And the Nazis also used the word “vernebelt” (literally meaning befogged) to refer to people, the way it is common now to use “disappeared.”

  41. I am trying to translate this but am vexed: “Aucune autre toile, dans les 2,500 exposées, ne demande une aussi verte réponse, car, comme je l’ai dit plus haut, on peut, on doit même voir là une tentative qui vient d’elle-même au-devant de l’examen.” What does “verte réponse” mean? And how would you translate “on doit même voir là une tentative qui vient d’elle-même au-devant de l’examen” ? If “verte reponse means high aprroval, green as in positive, “go”, then this is what I cam up with:No other painting/canvas, among/of the 2’500 exhibited/shown, demands such high approval (Reponse verte? Aucune idee. Approval? Like “green light” in English?) because, as I said earlier/above, we can, we must even, recognize there is an effort/attempt from within itself that is greater than the test.” It doesn’t seem right. Anybody?


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