In his fine Threepenny Review essay French Without Tears, Luc Sante (whose last name is pronounced SAHNT [according to the author himself, who was kind enough to drop by the comment section to correct my mistaken two-syllable version]) reminisces about the process by which, as a young immigrant from Belgium, he settled into English without losing French; it contains the following delightful passage on the glories of French as used in comics:

But I had a fortuitous link to the world of francophone children: my father’s sister and her husband, small-town newsagents, subscribed me to my favorite Belgian comic magazine. I read Spirou every week for ten years, and through it subcutaneously absorbed not just the living language but also a sense of daily life in a Belgium that was then changing much more rapidly than my parents realized. The comic weeklies (the others were Tintin and Pilote, the latter published in France) had no American equivalent; they combined about a dozen serial comic strips, on double-page spreads, with a handful of single-page gags, along with games, contests, educational tidbits, and some prose fiction I never so much as glanced at. I didn’t care much about stories; I cared passionately about graphic style, and this affected my reading—I disdained the ostensibly serious yarns, with their conventionally realist draftsmanship, in favor of the wildest and funniest drawings. The funny strips also happened to be the most unbridled in their use of language, reveling in the singular ability of French to generate wordplay, puns in particular.

French-speaking children are schooled in puns from the start. Of course, this could be said of speakers of English and maybe every other language as well—that’s what riddles are for. For example, I date my true immersion in English from the moment I understood the humor of Q: When is a boy not a boy? A: When he turns into a store. But puns lie much thicker on the ground in French, in large part because the language is so much more rigorous and willfully delimited than the sprawling mass of English, an elegantly efficient two-stroke engine to the latter’s uncontainable Rube Goldberg mechanism. French does not necessarily have fewer sounds than English, but the protocols governing their order and frequency make their appearances predictable—hence the profusion of sound-alike phrases and sentences, which fueled Surrealism and ensure the ongoing appeal of Freudian and post-Freudian ideas in the French-speaking world: Les dents, la bouche. Laid dans la bouche. Les dents la bouchent. L’aidant la bouche. Etc. These phrases, which sound exactly alike, respectively mean “the teeth, the mouth;” “ugly in the mouth;” “the teeth choke her;” “helping her chokes her.” You don’t need to have been psychoanalyzed by Jacques Lacan to see from these examples how language can assist thought in swiftly tunneling from the mundane to the taboo. Children are instinctively aware of this, even and perhaps especially if they are being raised Catholic and are thus trained in the finer points of repression.

The most internationally famous characters in Spirou were Les Schtroumpfs, known in the English-speaking world as the Smurfs, small blue elfin creatures who lived in a toadstool village. In their English-language animated appearances they could be cloyingly cute, but in French they were spared this fate by their language, marked by an incessant use of the (invented) word schtroumpf, employed as noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and interjection. Every reader, no matter how young, understood this usage without a gloss, because it parodied the French conversational trope of substituting catch-alls such as truc, chose, and machin for words that cannot immediately be called to mind, in any grammatical position. What schtroumpf highlighted was the ability of such dummy words to suggest words prohibited from writing or speech, regardless of the fact that the actual words schtroumpf was substituting for were always clear from context. Truc or chose became neutral from exposure, but schtroumpf subliminally spoke to the unconscious; its surface strangeness could make it mean things that the child’s mind does not yet know but can imagine with tantalizing vagueness.

Not all the wordplay was so freighted, of course. In the Astérix series (tales of a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of winged-helmeted first-century Gauls, serialized in Pilote), the characters’ names were always elaborate puns that turned on their suffixes, -ix for the Gauls and -us for the enemy Romans (to pick two that don’t require lengthy glosses, one of the former was Madamboevarix, one of the latter Volfgangamadéus). Deciphering such names—and puns of that sort were rife in all the funny strips—provided an agreeable gymnastic exercise, especially if it took a week or two of rolling the name around before it clicked open like a combination lock. Meanwhile, the adventures of Tintin, the boy reporter, a Belgian (and eventually international) institution since the 1920s, featured as a recurring character Captain Haddock, an alcoholic and irascible but good-hearted old sea-dog. He was noted for his pratfalls, and even more for the streams of insults he would launch at villains, thieving wildlife, cars that splashed puddle water at him on the street, or small boys who had hit him in the head with a ball: Accapareurs! Coloquintes! Ophicléides! Patapoufs! Cloportes! Anthropophages! Catachrèses! Moujiks! Rhizomes! Ectoplasmes! Anthropopithèques! Analphabètes! Cornichons! Va-nu-pieds! Saltimbanques! Moules à gaufres! Protozoaires! (Monopolists, bitter apples, serpents [the musical instrument], fatsos, woodlice, cannibals, catachreses, muzhiks, rhizomes, ectoplasms, Anthropopitheci Erecti, illiterates, gherkins, ragamuffins, mountebanks, waffle irons, protozoa.) It was an explosion in the dictionary, Finnegans Wake on a matchbook cover, a fantastically liberating surge of pure unshackled language. The comics provided an important lesson: language could be a medium of fun, and not just safe, approved fun, either, but wild, anarchic, disruptive fun. There was nothing lazy or slapdash about the comics’ employment of words, though; that much was clear even to an eight-year-old. Therefore, the appendix to the lesson was that fun could best be achieved through a thorough grounding in ballistics and a heightened sense of precision.

He later discusses his introduction to the world of poetry thanks to a visit to a Montreal bookstore, where he bought “a fat paperback anthology of French poetry, published by Marabout”:

I wasn’t very much interested in poetry, except maybe stray bits of Beat stuff I’d seen here and there, but in flipping through the volume I noticed that many of the poems looked different from what I’d generally been exposed to: some had very long lines, some were studded with proper nouns, some were even in prose, if such a thing was possible. That night I lay on my bed in the motel room in Longueil and opened the book to

A la fin tu est las de ce monde ancien

“In the end you are tired of this old world.” Thus began “Zone,” by Guillaume Apollinaire.

Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin “Shepherdess o Eiffel Tower the flock of bridges is bleating this morning.” The poem was speaking directly to me, to me alone, as proven on the second page: Voilà la jeune rue et tu n’es encore qu’un petit enfant / Ta mère ne t’habille que de bleu et de blanc. “Here is the young street and you are but a little child / Your mother only dresses you in blue and white,” which was exactly true of my early childhood; that tu clinched it. Tu regardes les yeux pleins de larmes ces pauvres émigrants / Ils croient en Dieu ils prient les femmes allaitent des enfants / Ils emplissent de leur odeure le hall de la gare Saint-Lazare. “You look with your eyes filled with tears at the poor immigrants / They believe in God they pray the women suckle infants / They fill with their odor the hall of the Saint-Lazare station”—I had been there and seen that! Furthermore, the poem seemed to be about a yearning for modernity in the face of confusion as to the truth of religion, a clairvoyant depiction of my own central inner drama of the time. But there was more: the poem was fluid, rhyming but in an elastic meter like an improvised song, with phrases strung together without punctuation but always clear in their meaning, with an unlabored syntax close to conversational, with capitalized names like cherries in a box of chocolates, with sudden movements in time and space executed with a casual legerdemain, with a flash and whirl and continual surprise that was just what I wanted from the modern world but with a palpable kindness that reassured me as the poem flung me about.

At that moment I became a French modernist…

Read (as they say) the whole thing.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. I saw this somewhere else and put Sante on my list. (Not the list of people to kill, the good list).
    The psychologist George Herbert Mead learned to speak French from his New England neighborhood and learned to read French from comix. I have a friend who learned a fair amount of Italian from CD liner notes. “Relevance” has its points.
    French homonymy also gives you “rime riche” which is now illegal. I’ve seen Rutebeuf poems (ca. 1200 AD??) in which the same word or sound appeared six times in three lines.
    Rimbaud identified with the Gauls’ ineptness at fighting, but refrained from painting himself blue. Seemingly (help anyone?) French would identify with Gauls as an alternative to being either Franks or Romans.
    There was a bad-taste Mad Magazine / National Lampoon kind of thing called Croc out of Montreal which had that comic-book feeling. Alas, they bankrupted.

  2. Tintin and Asterix I had growing up in English and French (comparing the two was my introduction to the fact that you might miss something in translation). In Cannes I discovered Le Genie des Alpages: clever wordplay and ideas involving very smart sheep. Blog entry here contains links.

  3. I’ve been thinking of using French-language editions of Tintin and Asterix as two among several tools to teach myself to read French. Any thoughts on their efficacy?
    Also, Sante’s book Low Life is quite an entertaining read. I especially like the new Afterword in which he discusses the many changes in Manhattan’s Lower East Side since the 1970s.

  4. Michael Farris says

    “French-speaking children are schooled in puns from the start. Of course, this could be said of speakers of English and maybe every other language as well”
    I don’t know, I’ve read that speakers of Thai don’t especially go in for puns, despite the fact that homophony abounds. The author (non-thai) theorized that it’s just too easy). I don’t know enough Thai to judge.
    Can anyone say something authoritative on the (non-)existence of punning behavior in Chinese?

  5. Lots and lots of puns in Chinese. They’re woven into daily life and have religious functions at times. For example, certain animals are lucky or unlucky because their names pun with good or bad words (the “bat” is “lucky” because both are “fu”.) At weddings all kinds of lucky things are brought forth, and unlucky things are shunned.
    Arthur Smith, an XIXc missionary, lived in a Chinese village and collected that kind of thing. His stuff goes in and out of print — highly recommended.
    Puns and word-games also can play a major role in Chinese poetry. Puns are often taken seriously rather than humorously, as if they represent a deep hidden meaning.
    ARTHUR H.SMITH, Proverbs and common sayings from the Chinese
    Village Life in China A Study in Sociology By: Smith, Arthur H

  6. joe tomei says

    I’ve been thinking of using French-language editions of Tintin and Asterix as two among several tools to teach myself to read French. Any thoughts on their efficacy?
    I don’t know how good your French is, but Gaston La Gaffe are in a bit more bite size form. Never liked Tintin, but did like Lucky Luke.
    On the subject of comics, the late lamented Mangajin was quite fun for Japanese

  7. Luc Sante says

    As a frequent visitor here, I’m flattered to be the subject of a post! I would definitely recommend Lucky Luke to English-speakers, especially Americans: Rene Goscinny, the writer, apprenticed at Mad, and the humor is interestingly Franco-American, complete with translingual puns.
    And by the way, my last name is pronounced SAHNT–it’s not French but Walloon, originally “Zande,” the Walloon for “Alexander.”

  8. Thank you, both for visiting and for correcting the pronunciation (and, needless to say, for the etymology, which you doubtless knew I was wondering about). I thought it was probably one syllable, with no reason but my highly developed Sprachgefühl, but when I asked a cashier at Coliseum Books, where you had just done a reading (which I didn’t know about or I would definitely have been there), she said confidently that it was sahn-TAY. I should have trusted my Sprachgefühl, dammit!

  9. I don’t know how good your French is
    My French is beginner level. One reason I’d like to read Tintin in French is because I read English-language translations in Children’s Digest magazine, when I was a kid in the 1970s. I loved Tintin then, and so I thought perhaps comics like Tintin and Asterix would be a good learning aid.

  10. [hooray for Lucky Luke!]

  11. I knew as soon as I saw the title what this entry would be about, heh.
    Dietsch, I credit Astérix for a good part of whatever fluency in French I once had.
    I’d love to find Fred’s Philémon series again.

  12. Hebrew puns translated into other langauges
    I am gathering a collection of Hebrew expressions that appear in other
    languages as idioms or nonsense. Some examples are provided below, using
    @ = aleph, X = het, and 3 = aiyin. I hope the members of the list can
    provide additional examples.
    Type 1: The translation of a Hebrew pun on a Hebrew phrase
    Ex. 1:
    Clear text: B’QoSHi = barely, hardly, scarcely
    Heb. pun: B’3oR SHiNai (Job 19:20)
    English: “by the skin of my teeth”
    Ex. 2:
    Clear text: YaRa:aX GaVNooNi = gibbous moon
    Heb. pun: YaRoK G’ViNaH
    English: The moon is made of “green cheese”.
    Ex. 3:
    Clear text: PeLeTZ + K’Foo = shiver, tremble + frozen (compare English palsy)
    Heb. pun: P’LiZ + KoF
    English: brass monkey (weather)
    (Treating P as B in Arabic, P’LiZ KoF => balls (k)off …, hence
    “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”)
    Ex. 4:
    Clear text: YeReKH yod-resh-khaf = buttock, haunch, thigh
    Heb. pun: YaRa:aX yod-resh-het = moon
    English: to moon = to expose one’s buttocks as a prank or gesture of disrespect.
    Type 2: The translation of a Hebrew pun on a phrase in another language
    Ex. 5
    Latin: sopor sond = sleep soundly/deeply
    Heb. pun: S’PoR TZo@N = count sheep (imperative)
    English: Count sheep (to go to sleep)
    Ex. 6
    Latin: Saccharomyces cervisae = Brewer’s yeast (an ancient hangover remedy)
    Heb. pun: Sa3aR MiNSHaKH KeLeV = hair bite dog (compare Gk Cerberus,
    the 3-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades)
    English: Take “hair of the dog that bit you” (as a hangover remedy)
    There are far more cases where a Hebrew phrase is transliterated (not
    translated) into an [English] idiom. I will post some of these at a
    later date. In the meantime, I hope to receive more translation examples
    from list members.
    Best regards,
    Israel “izzy” Cohen

  13. I read an interview with Franquin (creator of Spirou and friend of Peyo – creator of les schtroumpfs).
    Anyway, he said that the use of the word “schtroumpf” began when Peyo had just begun drawing them, and was engulfed by the universe and adventures of the smurfs. In a restaurant, he then said “pass me the smurf”, when he intended something else, the salt I think.
    Then he used it in his cartoons as well 🙂

  14. I noticed an anecdote in WikiP:Captain Haddock (cited from: Thompson, Harry (1991). Tintin: Hergé and his creation (First ed.). Hodder & Stoughton) that might be of interest:

    In one particularly angry state, Hergé had the captain yell the word “pneumothorax” (a medical emergency caused by the collapse of the lung within the chest). One week after the scene appeared in Tintin magazine, Hergé received a letter allegedly from a father whose boy was a great fan of Tintin and also a heavy tuberculosis sufferer who had experienced a collapsed lung. According to the letter, the boy was devastated that his favourite comic made fun of his own condition. Hergé wrote an apology and removed the word from the comic. Afterwards, the letter was discovered to be fake, written and planted by Hergé’s friend and collaborator Jacques Van Melkebeke.

  15. That’s an asshole thing to do. I don’t understand people like that. (No, it’s not as bad as robbing and/or murdering people.)

  16. With friends like that…

  17. marie-lucie says

    I did not exactly grow up with Tintin, Astérix and the rest, but I did encounter them later. My mother started buying Spirou when she had grandchildren (not mine) and remained a fan when they grew up. My father was more a fan of Lucky Luke, which reminded him of Wild West movies and their displays of horsemanship.

    Learning to read French with Tintin: OK on paper. Try to get a taped version. As a model of actual speech, Tintin’s own speech is quite old-fashioned (like Tintin himself). You won’t catch him using swear words or even slang, even if he does get mad at times. In that respect, le capitaine Haddock’s active repertory is extensive but so unusual that it is almost its own dialect, used for expressiveness rather than nformation.

  18. PlasticPaddy says
    Émile Brami is a Céline authority who finds the inspiration (and some identical expressions) for Haddock’s cursing in an anti-semitic pamphlet of Céline. Hergé was not known to be a great reader, and Brami suggests it was van Melkebeke who recommended reading the pamphlet (van M was a bibliophile and according to Brami according to the biography of van M by B. Mouchart–OK this is not so good–van M frequently cites Céline in his diary).

  19. David Marjanović says

    Found it. Complete with bachi-bouzouks.

  20. January First-of-May says

    serpents [the musical instrument]

    I’m guessing that Luc Sante probably didn’t expect his English readers to recognize, and/or didn’t recognize himself, the word “ophicleide“.

    (TIL of the etymology: faux-Greek for “serpent with keys”.)

  21. “There’s room in this wide world for gentile and Jew,
    For the Bashi-Bazouk, but there’s no room for you.”

    –Sean O’Casey, anti-strikebreaker song in Red Roses for Me

  22. (1) “French-speaking children are schooled in puns from the start. Of course, this could be said of speakers of English”

    Anthea Bell and Dereck Hockridge were masterful translators of Asterix into English, and made great use of puns. To give an example, in Asterix the Gladiator, the names of two legionaries (Ziguépus & Rictus) were rendered as Sendervictorius & Appianglorius in English.

    It took me ages to realise that Appianglorius didn’t have anything to do with the Appian Way. The names come straight from the English royal anthem.

    By way of comparison, translations into other languages are not as inventive. eg. the German translation has Zigepus & Rictus, and the Italian has Zighepus & Rictus.

    (2) It’s also worth noting that Spirou and Tintin magazines both come from Belgium. So they were published not just in French, but also in Dutch as: Robbedoes and Kuifje. Do we have any Dutch readers who can shed some light on how puns and wordplay came out in the Dutch versions?

  23. We’ve discussed Asterix a number of times, with much multilinguality, e.g. 2003, 2013, 2014.

  24. A serpent is quite distinct from those newfangled ophicleides.
    The serpent has an interesting history, having been used in rural churches in England, which had orchestras when they couldn’t afford an organ.

  25. Interesting indeed, thanks!

    Eventually, the Serpent found use in the orchestra. This was quite a stretch for an instrument designed for quiet accompaniment of church choirs! However, there was still no adequate substitute, and the Serpent was the only bass brass instrument capable of playing loudly enough for use in these larger groups. This is where, in spite of the necessity of its use, the Serpent began to fall into disrepute due to its shortcomings in this type of work. This is also when some of the variations of the Serpent came into being, notably the Russian Bassoon, the Bass Horn, and the Ophicleide. […] During its orchestral career, the Serpent was finally phased out in favor of newer, more suitable bass brass instruments such as the Ophicleide, the Euphonium, and the Tuba.

    The Serpent remained in relative obscurity for the better part of the 1900s, until its current newfound popularity was spearheaded by the late Christopher Monk. He was a versatile and enthusiastic man who studied the Cornett and Serpent, began to produce accurate reproductions of them, and became a leading player and advocate for these forgotten instruments.

  26. Russian Bassoon.

    It found its golden age during the second quarter of the 19th century. Countries such as France, Belgium, Germany and Italy, housed various local manufacturers for Russian Bassoons. The name is assumed to proceed from Rust (one of the first manufacturers in Lyon, succeeded by Dubois), pronounced in a very similar way as “Russian” in French (Russe). Another theory holds that it could have been called Prussian Bassoon in the first place, instead of Russian (due to another spelling mistake), having been used in the Napoleonic campaigns at Prussia. Either way, its name is presumed to have nothing to do with its real geographical origin, although the manufacturer Rust was in fact of Prussian origin.

  27. N.b.: Luc Sante is now (as of September 2021) Lucy Sante: “You can call me Lucy …and my pronoun, thankyouverymuch, is she.”

  28. From the WP page: “[She was] at Columbia University from 1972 to 1976;[1] due to several incompletes and outstanding library fines, she did not take a degree.

    In principle, my own case. Except I attended CCNY, not Columbia; was there three years later; and didn’t owe any library fines. —Radio Cowanvan

  29. David Marjanović says

    …how high were the library fines that…

  30. Not letting you graduate is the university’s leverage to see to it that you eventually pay your fines. If they were a matter of a few cents, this might be waived. Since it has no such leverage, NYPL no longer even attempts to collect late fees, though they do attempt to collect replacement fees for lost or damaged materials.

  31. David Marjanović says

    How high were the fines that not graduating was easier than paying them?

  32. if i’m remembering right, eliminating late fees (at NYPL – really all three nyc systems, i think – and elsewhere) has turned out to increase both return rates and lending/usage rates.

  33. How high were the fines that not graduating was easier than paying them?

    That’s the wrong end of the stick: if you don’t graduate, you have trouble working a middle-class job in the U.S. at all. I started work at a magic moment in programming when almost nobody had appropriate credentials: the great programmer Edsger Dijkstra (1930-2002) had to list his occupation as “physicist” based on his degree even though he never worked as a physicist, because the Dutch authorities would not accept “programmer” on his paperwork. I’ve made it up to this point based on “bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience”. I am probably at or close to the end of the line for this. (Yes, still no job.)

  34. How high were the fines that not graduating was easier than paying them?
    I guess it’s the other way round – if you have decided that you’re not able or willing to graduate, you may as well not bother with paying your library fees.
    @JC: fingers crossed for your job search!

  35. Yes, please let us know how it goes!

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