Rue Merdiere.

From John Kelly’s The Great Mortality (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), courtesy of Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti:

By the early fourteenth century so much filth had collected inside urban Europe that French and Italian cities were naming streets after human waste. In medieval Paris, several street names were inspired by merde, the French word for “shit.” There were rue Merdeux, rue Merdelet, rue Merdusson, rue des Merdons, and rue Merdiere—as well as a rue du Pipi.

(LH on street names in 2007.)


  1. AJP Crown says

    A French friend of mine said it was common to refer to the French president at that time, Georges Pompidou, as Pompe-merde. That was a good deal later than the fourteenth century and yet before the Centre Pompidou opened in the Place Pompidou, so it may not count. Although I’ve never heard of a Shit Street, French may have fewer synonyms or euphemisms for merde than English does for shit; England certainly had rude street names (Gropecunt Lane etc.)

  2. January First-of-May says

    I’m reminded of the Clean Ponds (Чистые пруды) in Moscow, which (it is said) used to be called the Dirty Ponds (Поганые пруды), from the sheer amount of pollution in them (though mostly unrelated to human waste), until cleaned up in the 17th early 18th century.

  3. An entertaining Google Books search turned up this, from We Marines (2019) by Edward (Ned) Black:

    From there we either went to Shit Street, near where the cab stopped, or up to the Key.

    Shit Street, was the name for South Hotel Street in Honolulu. A strip of honky tonk bars, whore houses, massage parlors, fortune tellers and tattoo shops. The Key, was Waikiki beach where the girls visiting from the mainland were. Some of the troops loved it on Shit Street.

    Others, we called Waikiki Raiders, lived for the Key.

  4. Trond Engen says

    There’s a great number of Lortebekk “Shit Creek in Norway. Some are still named that on maps, others have been renamed (or reclaimed their older — or competeing — geographically descriptive names). In my town what is now known as Kverndalsbekken “Mill Valley Creek” can be found on old maps as Lortebekk. But the name isn’t forgotten. It’s used as a jocular name for the town by people from the neighbouring town. I’ve thought that it harks back to the early days when the air was fresher and the drinking water was cleaner in the newly founded town closer to the coast. Later it was to become a major industrial center and gain a reputation for polluted air and waters that it’s still fighting to shake off, decades after the industry was cleaned.

    I’m not aware of any “Shit Street” or “Piss Alley” from Norwegian towns. That type of name is quintessentially colloquial and woud rarely make it onto maps. Also, streets were named colloquially for the most descriptive feature, and if all streets were about equally shitty, which I expect they were, it wouldn’t be much worth to make a distinction.

  5. AJP Crown says

    Shit Street, was the name for South Hotel Street in Honolulu. A strip of honky tonk bars, whore houses, massage parlors,

    Shit Street was a euphemism for Gropecunt Lane, in other words.

  6. A little Googling suggests Kelly has misinterpreted his cited (p.308) source (or more likely his own jotted summary of that source) — Jean-Pierre Leguay “La rue au Moyen Age” (1984) — which gives (p.56) a survey of such names in towns throughout France:

    … on rencontre des rues Sale ou Foireuse (Angoulême), des rues ou passages Merdeux, Merdelet, Merdusson, des Merdrons (Niort, Chartres), des rues Merdière (Lagny), une ruelle de Pipi (Châlons-sur-Marne), …

    I was sceptical that a single town would have such confusingly similar names; as AJP suggests, other words for shit would have been available if needed. Paris did have a rue Merdelet; latterly Verdelet .

  7. Well found!

  8. AJP Crown says

    Well seen, Molly. Your French is better than mine. une ruelle de Pipi – They’re everywhere; to acknowledge it is unusual.

  9. I have a friend who lived near the Campo dei Fiori in Rome, on a little side alley named San Salvatore della Merda dei Gatti.

    Or maybe that was just his name for it.

  10. I’ll note here that JC has changed the server for the Commented-On Language Hat Posts so the link is again working.

  11. AJP Crown says

    Thanks, JC. I thought it must be just me that couldn’t get it to work.

  12. I actually only know of Georges Pompidou because of the Centre Pompidou. I was not that interested in Cold War French politics. My girlfriend at the time insisted that we visit it; I hand’t heard of him before.

  13. Trond Engen says

    AJP: A French friend of mine said it was common to refer to the French president at that time, Georges Pompidou, as Pompe-merde

    I had to reread that to see that it was a French friend and not a Norwegian. My grandmother (b. 1906) and her sister (b, 1901) used to joke with his name when we kids should go potty. Pomp is a baby word for “butt”, do means “toilet”, so pompidou sounds like pomp i do “butt in loo”. (I didn’t know it was a French politician until many years later. In the meantime I had thought i had to do with Madame (de) Pompadour. I’m not entirely sure they didn’t confuse the names.)

  14. basal-a baqdaju üjebel-e de
    baγatur nomun sakiγulsun-tai
    baγsiraγsan olan qaračuul-tai :
    batu širun gün-tei
    basačibel-e jiq-a-yin qasiyatai :
    baγasutai γoul-yin ni γorki-tai :
    bolbasuraγulju bodun maγtabal-a da
    Boγda-yin mani küriy-e tere gen-e de

    Once again, you will gaze with delight –
    There are heroes-keepers of the faith,
    Crowds of ordinary people,
    A strict prison,
    And besides – courtyards on the outskirts,
    And a river full of feces.
    If you wish to praise it, after consideration,
    This is our Bogdyn-khure!

    (From an early 20th century poem praising Mongolian capital)

  15. baγasutai γoul or Baast gol (Shit River) was known to generations of Ulaanbaatar residents until it was renamed officially to West Selbe river.

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    Piss Alley in Copenhagen. But allegedly it was so named because of the cattle kept in the houses along Larsbjørnsstræde, or rather their fluid excretions that would run along the street towards the city walls.

  17. AJP Crown says

    pompidou sounds like pomp i do
    This sort of childishness I irritate my Norwegian family with. Sometimes they pretend not to understand. I’ll give it a try.

    I actually only know of Georges Pompidou because of the Centre Pompidou.
    I didn’t know it was a French politician until many years later.

    He vanished off the radar much quicker than say Mitterand or (obv.) de Gaulle. I’m not sure why.

  18. David Marjanović says

    or (obv.) de Gaulle. I’m not sure why.

    I think you’ve answered your question. When he got into office there was a caricature of him climbing on a ladder and jumping into de Gaulle’s gigantic footsteps.

  19. Trond Engen says

    ’ll give it a try.

    Pomp may be lost on the younger generation. You can make it more accessible to them as promp i do “fart in loo”.

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    From French wikipedia:”Le patronyme occitan Pompidor [pɔm.pi.ˈdu] (francisé en Pompidou) désigne celui « qui est originaire du Pompidou », nom de plusieurs lieux-dits dans la région,….Le toponyme lui-même désignerait un petit plateau, une hauteur au sommet aplati, d’une racine pomp-, de sens obscur, et du suffixe -idor, -ador (souvent francisé en -idou, -adou)[1]. On trouve aussi des francisations différentes, notamment Pompadour, Pompidor. ”
    So Pompadour/Pompidou are place name doublets.

  21. Very interesting!

  22. AJP Crown says

    You can make it more accessible to them as promp

    And to me, promp being one of the first words of Norwegian the parent of a young child learns (“plomper dogs”, in my case).

  23. @AJP Crown: At least I, if I thought about it, could probably eventually identify Georges Pompidou as the French president after de Gaulle. Pompidou’s successor, in turn, Valery Marie Rene Georges Giscard d’Estaing, I would never have remembered in a million years.

    It’s obvious why Charles de Gaulle is so well known, and I think Francois Mitterrand is more remembered than his two predecessors for a couple of reasons. One is that Mitterrand seems to have been a much more flamboyant and internationally seen figure than Pompidou or d’Estaing. The other is that his election marked a real sea change in French politics; he was the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic,* and his ascent may have marked the first fundamentally socialist government in France since the premierships of Leon Blum** and Edouard Daladier in the 1930s.

    * It’s obviously up to the French state how they want to number their republics, but it has always seemed silly to me that the reorganization of the government as a presidential republic in 1958 should be assigned a whole different number. The First Republic had at least three different constitutional systems over the course of the French Revolution, but that period is still only counted as a single unit.

    ** It has always amazed me that Blum—a Jewish, socialist, anti-fascist leader—managed to survive the Second World War. He was sent to Buchenwald and later Dachau, but there was no move to have him executed until the Third Reich was collapsing—at which point the local authorities refused to execute him and other high-level detainees (including Kurt Schuschnigg, Alexander von Falkenhausen, Franz Halder, Prince Philipp of Hesse, Hjalmar Schacht***, Miklos Kallay, and Alexander von Stauffenberg) in 1945.

    *** Schact, having served time in Nazi concentration camps, was extremely angry about being tried with the major war criminals at the first Nuremberg Trial.

  24. Consistent numbering system for evolution of the French state:

    First Kingdom (from Clovis to Charlemagne)
    First Empire (Charlemagne)
    Second Kingdom (from treaty of Verdun to the Great French Revolution)
    First Republic
    Second Empire (Napoleon)
    Third Kingdom (interrupted by 100 Days)
    Fourth Kingdom (Orleanist)
    Second Republic (1848-1851)
    Third Empire (Napoleon III)
    Third Republic (from fall of Paris to fall of Paris)
    Fourth Republic (1944-1958)
    Fifth Republic (from return of de Gaulle to present)

  25. @SFReader: I don’t think there is any constitutional continuity between the Carolingian and Capetian kingdoms. Hugh the Great got himself named Duke of the Franks (which was nominally a solely military title in the Dark Ages, but which had previously been used by Charles Martel in the same way the Hugh of Vermandois used it—as a stepping stone to place his son on the throne). Then his like-named son was elected King of the Franks in 987. For about a century prior to the Capetians conclusively claiming the crown, the collapse of central authority in the Carolingian Frankish state had transformed the monarchy into an elective one, because the Carolingian monarchs had not been strong enough to ensure a dynastic succession; and eventually, the Frankish nobles were convinced to abandon entirely the legitimate position of the Carolingian dynasty. However, in order to do secure the crown permanently, the Hughs Capet forged marriage alliances with the other most powerful nobles and basically had to promise complete independence to the Burgundians and Aquitaineans. (The only important exception was the duke/king’s right to raise troops from those territories for foreign wars.) Within a generation, the Vikings in Normandy had gotten a similar deal for themselves; nominally, they held territory as vassals, but they were effectively independent rulers, and the Duke of Normandy was not even required to respond to a summons to the King of the Franks’ court.

    The whole governmental apparatus was replaced with the change in dynasties. The capital of France is located in Paris because that was the Capetians’ home province—and initially the sole territory that they could be confident they could fully control. In 1050, Normandy was the best-organized state in “Frankish” territory, and the Norman conquest of England made the Houses of Norman and Plantagenet the most powerful forces in Western Europe. It took more than two centuries from the coronation of Hugh Capet for the Capetian central government to establish any kind of control over Normandy, Aquitaine, and other lesser provinces like Brittany and Anjou. Even then, the northern part of France was not securely under governmental control until the final English defeat in the Hundred Years’ War. And the Burgundian kingdom (divided between nominal fiefs of France and the Holy Roman Empire) took even longer—until the early Renaissance—to bring back into the French state. The reconstituted France was thus a completely different entity than it had been more than six hundred years before under Charlemagne.

  26. AJP Crown says

    What I don’t understand is why there was a fifth republic, or a fourth. What was changed? We may need Athel Cornish-Bowden to explain.

  27. AJP Crown says

    I hadn’t heard of Hjalmar Schacht, Brett. He seems to have been very smart, a nasty piece of work with some prescience about economics. It says in Wikipedia, about his Danish name, that his parents had at first wanted to call him Horace Greeley Schacht. I doubt Hitler would have approved of that, and even if it was impossible to predict Hitler in 1877, the year of his birth, people really ought to consider that weird names could have unwanted consequences for their children; perhaps they did so, they went with Hjelmar instead.

  28. AJP Crown says
  29. Ah, a Wckr Spgt fan! Do you sit there in the frozen north counting your Shrimper Cassette collection and waiting for the release of Bug-Free America (which “was expected in 2006, but has yet to debut”)?

  30. David Marjanović says

    What was changed?

    The constitution – majorly, turning the country from a parliamentary into a more (and more) presidential republic.

  31. >The houses of Norman and Plantagenet

    The latter are the descendants of Ermengarde of Anjou, sadly left out of the late June post and comments. It was her aunt’s name too.

    Also, my spellcheck, confronted with Plantagenet, offered languagehat as an alternative.

  32. AJP Crown says

    The Wckr Spgt film Bug-Free America was expected in 2006, but has yet to debut.

    I love how the Wiki has a link to film, in case someone who’s interested in Bug-Free America doesn’t know what a film is.

    DM: The constitution – majorly, turning the country from a parliamentary into a more (and more) presidential republic.
    Thanks, that’s a good, succinct start and I shall read more about it now.

  33. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I actually only know of Georges Pompidou because of the Centre Pompidou.

    The great thing abut the Centre Pompidou is that it’s about the only large building in central Paris from which you can’t see the Centre Pompidou.

    What I don’t understand is why there was a fifth republic, or a fourth. What was changed? We may need Athel Cornish-Bowden to explain.

    I don’t remember why they needed a 4th Republic. The important thing about the 5th is that it converted the President from a figurehead into someone with power. I’m not sure how much it was an effect, but it put an end to the frequent changes of government that plagued post-war France (though those didn’t prevent the 30 years of continuously increasing prosperity — Les Trente Glorieuses).

  34. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I love how the Wiki has a link to film, in case someone who’s interested in Bug-Free America doesn’t know what a film is.

    I don’t share your love. It’s one of the most irritating features of Wikipedia, used by people who haven’t given any thought to what links readers will find useful. There are many links to the USA, for readers who don’t know what the USA is.

  35. I don’t share your love.

    AJP was being sarcastic. And on the scale of irritating features of Wikipedia, that barely rates as far as I’m concerned — you can easily ignore it. It’s the proprietary attitude of editors with a very limited view of the world and of knowledge that has pretty much ruined it for me (in terms of contributing; of course I still look stuff up there).

  36. AJP Crown says

    Sarcastic but also Wckr Spgt are said to be surrealists so I did actually “like” that some people might not have heard of film because they were zebras. I first heard this Francis Mitterrand song in the bath when I lived in Hamburg, on the John Peel Show on BBC Radio One, in 1992ish. When I told my German partner about it he was SHOCKED that they called him Francis, “Stupid Americans. Don’t they know it’s François?” He also felt I was somehow jointly responsible for this error, and we split up a short time afterwards.

  37. AJP Crown says

    (Architecture practice partner.)

  38. Lars Mathiesen says

    We assumed it was a goat keeping pal.

  39. AJP Crown says

    He was pre-goat.

  40. Assuming that the questions about the need for a Fourth Republic were not purely sarcastic: Whenever France’s republican form of government was interrupted and then reinstated, it was always numbered as a new republic. Both of the First and Second Republics had first lost their democratic structures to Napoleonic dictatorships, followed after a few years by transitions to Napoleonic empires. The Third Republic suffered a similar fate, although the collapse was on a much faster time scale. The reins of government were first, during the Fall of France,* handed to Petain’s autocratic faction; then, obeying the occupying Nazis’ demands, the state was officially reconstituted along new lines.

    That meant that the Vichy regime during the Second World War was not, even nominally, a continuation of the Third Republic. While many local and regional governments (especially in the initially unoccupied zone) continued to function much as they had during the Third Republic, the national government took deliberate steps to separate itself from the Republic—including dispensing with some of the famed symbols of republican France. The official name was “Etat Francais,” as can be seen on these 1942–1944 coinages, which also feature an obviously Fascist-inspired device with an ax and grain sheaves, and the pathetic “Trevail Familie Patrie” replacing the famous motto of the Republique Francais. (I don’t know if is true for all these Vichy coins, but the ones that are part of my personal collection are also made of cheap aluminum, rather than a more valuable metal.)

    So it made perfect sense to declare a Fourth Republic after France was liberated and democratic government restored. The Fifth Republic is the one that deviates from prior practice, since there had been multiple governmental reorganizations during the pre-World War II republican periods, but the ordinal number of republic was never incremented after such a reorganization. Until 1958, a newly numbered Republic was only declared when the republican government was reestablished after a period of despotism. However, as I said, it is up to the French people and government how they want to enumerate their Republics. De Gaulle, in particular, wanted to emphasize that the Fifth Republic was to be clean break with the national government that had come immediate before—in part to establish for himself a mandate to make the major changes needed to address the country’s serious problems of the time.

    * William Shirer wrote a book, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969). I wanted to read it, so I dropped by a public library branch to check their catalog. However, the network connections for some of the computers there were experiencing an outage, and I had to get one of the librarians to look it up for me. I gave her the author and title, and she punched it in, looked briefly confused, and then said, “That’s not the title. The book is called ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’” No, I told her, that was his famous book, which I had already read that one—twice—and I was looking for Shirer’s much less well known companion volume.**

    ** Shirer himself described The Collapse of the Third Republic this way in his preface—as the story of how, like the Germany he had previously written about, another great European state had fallen into fascism. The Collapse of the Third Republic book is about the same length as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, although it covers a significantly shorter period of time in detail. It includes a day-by-day recounting of the military and political chaos of May and June, 1945. Shirer again used the personal writings of many of the principals of the period, although it seems that he delves much more deeply into the detailed goings-on because of his much greater sympathy for the French.

  41. William Shirer wrote a book, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969)

    Interesting, I hope I get the chance to read it sometime — I loved The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

  42. Even if the initial quip about 3/4 Republics was sarcastic, un grand merci for your explanations. It’s indeed interesting that the French emphasize breaks where other nations tend to emphasize continuity. Maybe French national identity (at least for the political/intellectual class) is so ingrained that they feel the details are more important.

  43. @languagehat: The Collapse of the Third Republic is not as good as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but I found it quite informative. Shirer provides a picture of the political weaknesses of the Third Republic, and he also delves into the French military thinking of the time—the decisions made in the long wake of the First World War, which had had such a calamitous effect on France. These interconnected problems were part of what led to the French military’s astonishingly rapid and total defeat in 1940.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    Puts me in mind of the ancient Punch cartoon:

    (Lady in bookshop): I wonder if you have a copy of the French constitution?
    (Proprietor, sternly): Madam, we do not stock periodicals.

  45. AJP Crown says

    A mere one word of semi-sarcasm (love), and the rest of my comments tumble like a house of cards – I’ve been seriously wondering about the fourth & fifth French republics and I’m grateful for the Shirer, Brett as well as for your explanation!

  46. I actually had not heard of Georges Pompidou, and that he had been president of France, until I visited France in the mid ’00s. I knew of de Gaulle (but associated him with WWII) and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (who was still in politics). I remember both Mitterand and Chirac within my living memory as being presidents, and the latter was at the beginning of his first term when I started forming political opinions.

  47. It’s indeed interesting that the French emphasize breaks where other nations tend to emphasize continuity.

    Hell, Italy’s on its Seconda Repubblica and there was no change of constitution, just a major reshuffling of the political map after the Tangentopoli scandal of the early ’90s. And some journalists have even moved on to talking about the Terza now that Berlusconi is a waxwork of his former self and the coalitions are less clear-cut.

  48. David Marjanović says

    Austria’s First and Second republics have the same constitution; the number change just refers to the interruption by Austrofascism (1934–1938) and the Nazis.

    Jörg Haider wrote a book called Die dritte Republik, where he argued for massive changes to the constitution (all apparently for the worse), and a few years later Peter Pilz, then of the Greens, wrote a book called Die vierte Republik, arguing for massive changes to the constitution in the other direction.

  49. AJP Crown says

    Jörg Haider wrote a book called Die dritte Republik
    (Dritt means ‘shit’, in Norwegian.)

  50. David Marjanović says

    Quite appropriate.

  51. PlasticPaddy says

    It is interesting that the rise of authoritarian government in Austria was not considered as due to a defect in the Constitution, to be addressed in postwar changes. Compare the 5% rule in the German Grundgesetz.

  52. AJP Crown says

    Yes. In view of both the post and J. Haider.

  53. David Marjanović says

    Oh, the part where the parliament can shut itself down was actually fixed, AFAIK, but I don’t know if that ever was part of the constitution. The part where armed guards prevented the members from entering the building the next day was never constitutional.

    Edit: yup, it was fixed by an ordinary law on the 4th of July of… 1975: if all three presidents of the National Council resign, an automatic line of succession now kicks in. There is an English Wikipedia article on the whole “self-elimination of the Austrian Parliament”; the “citation needed” tag at the end is unwarranted, because the German version links directly to the law in question.

  54. @David Marjanović: In 1929 (I think), the Austrian Constitution also added a provision for emergency rule by presidential decree—a procedure which was a key part of the Nazi Machtergreifung over in Germany. However, it is not clear to me whether the presidential rule provision was actually part of the semi-legal takeover by the Fatherland Front in 1934, and I also don’t know whether that provision was carried over to the post-war Second Republic.

  55. David Marjanović says

    I don’t think it was part of that (a special law of 1917 was, and I’m sure that couldn’t be applied today), and I would guess it’s still there.

    There was indeed a major reform in 1929 that turned the president from a figurehead, like the one of today’s Germany, into the Ersatzkaiser who has lots of powers in theory but not that much in practice (less than the French president, for example).

  56. Turgot map of Paris – Norman B. Leventhal Map Center
    Original file ‎(35,690 × 28,030 pixels, file size: 853.45 MB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

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