In the continuing adventure of reading Proust to my wife at bedtime, we’ve gotten well into The Guermantes Way and are comfortably ensconced in Mme de Villeparisis’s godawful party, where everyone is busily engaged either in sucking up or in putting down. The Duchesse de Guermantes (with whom the young narrator is hopelessly in love for no reason except that she is the Duchesse de Guermantes) is being catty about Robert de Saint-Loup’s mistress, an actress named Rachel, and says (in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation we’re reading) “And then, if you’d heard the things she recited! I only remember one scene, but I’m sure nobody could imagine anything like it: it was called The Seven Princesses.” Another guest, the Comte d’Argencourt (the Belgian chargé d’affaires), responds, “Seven Princesses! Dear, dear, what a snob she must be!” Even though we’re reading the novel in English, I often check the original (which I keep on the night table by the bed), and here I found that Argencourt actually says “Les sept princesses, oh! Oïl, oïl, quel snobisme!” On the next page, the Duchess mocks Rachel for “uttering a sentence, no, not so much, not a quarter of a sentence” and then stopping “for a good five minutes,” to which Argencourt again responds “Oïl, oïl, oïl!” (the translation has “Oh, I say”).
Now, I was familiar with oïl only as an Old French word for ‘yes’ (descended from Latin hoc ille and developing into modern oui), and I had seen it only in the phrase langue d’oïl (which distinguishes French dialects that use descendents of hoc ille from langue d’oc, which uses descendents of hoc); I was completely baffled to see it turn up in a modern novel, and I have absolutely no clue what its connotations are. I’ve checked all my dictionaries, and even the largest only give it as a medieval affirmative (Trésor de la langue française informatisé: “Au Moyen Âge, mot exprimant l’affirmation dans les régions de France approximativement situées au Nord de la Loire et qui est devenu la particule oui en français”). At least I’ve learned that it’s now pronounced /ojl/, pretty much like the English word oil; I’ve always given it two syllables, oh-EEL, as it presumably sounded in Old French. But can any of my Francophone readers enlighten me as to what is conveyed by this archaic word on the lips of Argencourt?
Update. In the comments, D Filippi has the answer: it’s Proust’s respelling (mocking Belgian pronunciation?) of what is usually written ouille or ouïe—it can mean ‘ouch!’ (in response to physical pain) but also seems a close equivalent to Yiddish oy! (in response to more existential pain). The TLF says (after giving the ‘ouch’ definition):

[Souvent répété dans un discours pour évoquer une douleur ou un désagrément hypothétiques] Synon. aïe!, aïe, aïe, aïe! Tondre la pelouse, désherber le jardin, ouille, ouille, les courbatures… alors, pour bien récupérer, les nouveaux matelas Epéda Multispire (Télérama, 17 avr. 1983, no 1737, p.143). Ouillouillouille. Rascasse: Je vais chercher les épées. Il sort. Crockson, pleurant: ouyouyouye! ouyouyouye! (ACHARD, Voulez-vous jouer, 1924, I, 3, p.61).
Prononc. et Orth.: [uj]. Homon. houille. ROB. Suppl. 1970: ouille! „On écrit aussi ouïe. V. aïe. (Souvent répété, sous la forme ouillouillouille, écrit ouyouyouye chez Achard)”. Pt ROB. 1980: ouïe! ou ouille; Hachette 1980: ouille! ou ouïe! Étymol. et Hist. 1914 houille! (A. MARCHAND, Souris l’arpète, p.169 ds QUEM. DDL t.7). Onomatopée.

For what it’s worth, Mark Treharne’s recent (2002) translation has “Seven of them! Dear me, what a snob she must be!” and “Oh dear, oh dear!” for the two remarks quoted above.
And apropos of nothing, I can’t resist quoting this passage from a few pages earlier:

“No, it’s a new fashion with these young men to put their hats on the floor,” Mme. de Villeparisis explained. “I’m like you, I can never get used to it. Still, it’s better than my nephew Robert, who always leaves his in the hall. I tell him when I see him come in that he looks just like a clock-maker, and I ask him if he’s come to wind the clocks.”
“You were speaking just now, Madame la Marquise, of M. Molé’s hat; we shall soon be able, like Aristotle, to compile a chapter on hats,” said the historian of the Fronde, somewhat reassured by Mme. de Villeparisis’s intervention, but in so faint a voice that no one but myself overheard him.

In the original:

—Non, c’est une nouvelle habitude qu’ont ces messieurs de poser leurs chapeaux à terre, expliqua Mme de Villeparisis, je suis comme vous, je ne m’y habitue pas. Mais j’aime mieux cela que mon neveu Robert qui laisse toujours le sien dans l’antichambre. Je lui dis, quand je le vois entrer ainsi, qu’il a l’air de l’horloger et je lui demande s’il vient remonter les pendules.
—Vous parliez tout à l’heure, madame la marquise, du chapeau de M. Molé, nous allons bientôt arriver à faire, comme Aristote, un chapitre des chapeaux, dit l’historien de la Fronde, un peu rassuré par l’intervention de Mme de Villeparisis, mais pourtant d’une voix encore si faible que, sauf moi, personne ne l’entendit.


  1. Ah, so Argencourt is saying “Star, star” in Albanian.

  2. Ἐκ Αλβανίας δύναταί τι ἀγαθὸν εἶναι;

  3. For those who are wondering, ‘star’ in Albanian is yll (which Martin Huld derives from the PIE root *Eeus- ‘burn’ seen in Old English ysle ‘spark’ and Albanian ethe ‘fever’).

  4. Or perhaps misprom=nouncing “beer” in Norsk.

  5. D Filippi says

    I think Proust is very probably trying to transcribe the Belgian way of pronouncing the interjection “ouille” or “aïe” – supposed to be funny to French ears -, which French people very often repeat three times to express many different rather ineffable feelings… That’s how I understand it anyway. Check those words in the TLF. The definitions are focused on the expression of pain, but it has a much wider variety of uses (see the “hypothétique désagrément” mentionned in the definition of ouille). It definitely has nothing to do with the “oïl” of langue d’oïl.

  6. marie-lucie says

    I agree with the above comment. A spelling “oïe oïe oïe” would have made the interjective use clearer. And the pronunciation as in English “oil” must be a spelling pronunciation, instead of the older “o-il”, since few people have the opportunity to hear the word outside of a discussion of Old French.
    DF: “hypothétique désagrément” ??? this sounds like a calque of English “hypothetical disagreement”, if there is such an expression. In English, you agree or disagree with someone or something. In French, “les agréments et les désagréments de la vie” are the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of life. Is this no longer true?

  7. D Filippi: Thanks very much, that’s got to be it!
    marie-lucie: I think it’s clear from the full context that they mean what you want them to mean by the word: “Souvent répété dans un discours pour évoquer une douleur ou un désagrément hypothétiques.”

  8. Marie-Lucie: I’ve always heard knowledgeable French people pronounce it /ɔjl/ or /œjl/. I don’t think this can be a spelling pronunciation, since /ɔ’il/ makes perfect sense giving the spelling.

  9. David Marjanović says

    AÏE ! OUILLE !
    ¡AY! ¡HUY! ¡UAAAAH!

  10. David Marjanović says

    Grmpf. I didn’t think I’d be able to stop the posting of the misspelling, but I would have expected the <b> tag not to close automatically after one line. God-like editing powers, please!

  11. Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this editing as a gift.

  12. I wonder if there’s more lurking behind the Belgian ambassador’s remarks. Maeterlinck’s Les sept princesses appeared in Brussels in 1891. In the same year he refused the Prix Triennal de Littérature Dramatique offered by the Académie royale de Belgique because of “everything his predecessors in literature had suffered”. The notes in my copy of Maeterlinck’s poems say this marked a breach between the author and his “milieu d’origine”. So maybe the Belgian ambassador is reacting with hurt pride to Maeterlinck’s “snobisme” and maybe Proust is commenting on the ambassador’s parochialism with that local pronunciation. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this.

  13. Anyway, now that we speak of Albanian, Greek, French, and PIE, here’s another question (if I may hygienically highjack the high jinks). Greek ἐλευθερία famously means “freedom”. The question of its etymology came up the other day. Seems that the PIE root of the adjectival form is *leudheros (“of the people”), itself from *leudho- (“people, nation”, as opposed to “slaves”). See here for one source, where the cognateness with Latin libertas is exhibited. But the provenance of ”ἐ-” at the start is still unexplained. Most likely it’s an ἐλεmentary matter, and my interlocutors and I were mired in dullardry. Can anyone unbenighten us?

  14. Siganus Sutor says

    AÏE ! OUILLE !
    ¡AY! ¡HUY! ¡UAAAAH!

    David, may I offer you some cactuses*?

    Le monde entier est un cactus
    Il est impossible de s’asseoir
    Dans la vie, il y a des cactus
    Moi j’m’pique de le savoir
    Aïe! Aïe! Aïe! Ouille! Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!
    Aïe! Aïe! Ouille! …


  15. Siganus Sutor says

    Noetica: But the provenance of ”ἐ-” at the start is still unexplained. Most likely it’s an ἐλεmentary matter, and my interlocutors and I were mired in dullardry. Can anyone unbenighten us?
    Maybe you will find some e-thing worth of interest there:
    The E at Delphi.
    And if the article leaves your question unanswered, you could try to contact the author by ἐ-mail.

  16. Thanks, Tsigane. A quick review of that material yields no answer, but it is good to be reminded of its existence – as indeed it is good to be reminded of your existence. Or for that matter of one’s own existence. (To be or not to be, after all. Let us not forget our roots.)
    Alas though: for now, the mystery of the “ἐ-” ἐλεment remains almost ἐλευsinian in its ἐλευsiveness.

  17. Noetica: The PIE root is thought to have been not simply *leudh- but *Eleudh- with an e-colored laryngeal at the beginning, which shows up in Greek as a vowel but is lost in Latin (and Germanic, where the root gives German Leute ‘people’).

  18. Siganus Sutor says

    Noetica: as indeed it is good to be reminded of your existence.
    Ahem… thank you Noetica. I never thought I could be somebody especial* for anyone living on antipodean soil.
    * no, no, not in Spanish as it may appear to be (or not to be), but in Old French

  19. Thanks LH. Pokorny online indeed testifies to *eleudh-. Base meanings are given like this:
    English meaning: “to drive; to move, go”
    German meaning: “treiben, in Bewegung setzen; sich bewegen, gehen”
    As usual this points to further mysteries, but they seem tractable enough. There appears to be a pleasing similarity in the notions behind natio, gens, γένος, φῦλον, etc., and this *(e)leudh-. You see what I’m treibing at.
    Those bloody elaryngeals: they’ll get you every time! It’s a wonder we don’t have laryngistics instead of linguistics.
    Zigeuner: de nada.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this editing as a gift.


    (and Germanic, where the root gives German Leute ‘people’).

    Not to mention Slavic (same meaning, various variants of ljudi).
    Now please tell me what an e-colored laryngeal is. h1?

  21. h1.

  22. marie-lucie says

    I’ve always heard knowledgeable French people pronounce it /ojl/ or /œjl/. I don’t think this can be a spelling pronunciation, since /oil/ makes perfect sense giving the spelling.
    Le Petit Robert also gives /ojl/ (sorry, I cannot reproduce the open o), and I bet that those who say /œjl/ also pronounce bonne personne as beunne perseunne and alors as aleurs.
    I think that it is an error to pronounce oïl as /ojl/: it might look like a sensible pronunciation, but it does not make sense as the ancestor of French /wi/.
    a) Old French had the diphthong /oj/, written oi, deriving from earlier /ej/ written ei, itself from Vulgar Latin e in syllable-final position before a single consonant followed by a vowel, as in pelu- ‘hair (on the body)’ and tela ‘cloth’, which became respectively OF poil and toile, which were pronounced with the diphthong /oj/ (OF words borrowed into English at the time, such as choice from OF chois, have maintained the original diphthong). Later, /oj/ became /oè/, then /wè/, then /wa/, while the spelling remained the same. If the OF word for oui had been /ojl/, it would have evolved into /wal/, not /wi/.
    b) Even in OF, the word which became oui /wi/ was spelled oïl, not just oil. Similarly, the words which are now ouïe /wi/ ‘sense of hearing’ and ouïr /wir/ ‘(old verb for) to hear’ were oïe and oïr. The umlaut meant that the vowels o and i in these words were pronounced distinctly, not as a diphthong as in oie ‘goose’, now /wa/, or soir ‘evening’, now /swar/.
    c) French words of Latin origin containing /i/ in the stressed syllabel did have an /i/ in Latin, as in fourmi from formíca ‘ant’. OF oïl, which evolved into oui, is from Latin hoc ílle. Latin h had long been silent, the consonant between o and í weakened and disappeared, and the final vowel also disappeared early, both common and uncontroversial processes in the history of the late evolution of Latin. As a result of these processes, only /o/, /i/ and /l/ remained in OF, thus /o-íl/, as LH correctly assumed.
    d) In contemporary French, ï after another vowel does not usually mean /j/ in native French words such as naïf, but it indicates that the two vowels are ponounced separately, thus [na-if], not like English knife. It is used for the sound /j/ only in foreign words, such as troïka /trojka/ (see also the way Proust indicates the English diphthongs, in a recent LH post), or in interjections such as aïe (pronounced [aj]). But this can create problems in the interpretation of foreign words such as the Arabic name rendered in French as El Djezaïr: separate vowels, or diphthong?
    In the present case, since oïl as such is no longer in use, and encountered only in the expression langue d’oïl, it seems that it is generally being treated like a foreign word, and pronounced like English oil.

  23. marie-lucie says

    p.s. another word were means [a-i] is the name of the country Haïti, which in French is pronounced with three syllables: [Ha-i-ti]. Similarly for Zaïre: [Za-ire]. Also the woman’s name Adélaïde: [A-dé-la-ide], in spite of the fact that it is a rendering of the German name Adelheid where the ei is the diphthong [aj].

  24. marie-lucie says

    p.p.s. as for , there are many words ending in oïde, such as ovoïde, sphéroïde and the like, where is pronounced [o-i], as also in héroïque and stoïque. It is strange that an Old French word containing the letter sequence is being given a foreign, diphthongized pronunciation when there are so many models for the two-vowel pronunciation.
    The only reason I can think of is that oui is a monosyllable and the disyllabic [o-il] does not sound quite right to a modern French speaker.

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