Mark Liberman has a most interesting Language Log post about two forms of encoded language, Vietnamese nói lái and French contrepets. The latter is a form of potential punning that depends on imagined malapropism; as Mark puts it:

These are exemplified by phrases like “que votre Verbe soit en joie”, which literally means “may your Word be in joy”, but which expresses a less spiritual message if the indicated sounds (not letters!) are swapped: “que votre verge soit en bois” = “may your staff be of wood”.

The Vietnamese form is (to me, anyway) more interesting:

You can think of nói lái as subversive communication by means of implied speech errors. For example, in the period after the fall of Saigon to the communists in 1975, residents would say of the obligatory picture of Ho Chi Minh that they would like to “lộng kiếng” = “frame (it in) glass”, by which they meant that they would like to “liệng cống” = “throw (it in the) sewer”…
As John Balaban says of Ho Xuan Huong,

the greater part of her poems–each a marvel in the sonnet-like lu-shih style–are double entendres: each has hidden within it another poem with sexual meaning. In these poems we may be presented with a view of three cliffs, or a limestone grotto, or scenes of weaving or swinging, or objects such as a fan, some fruit, or even a river snail–but concealed within almost all of her perfect lu-shih is a sexual design that reveals itself by pun and imagistic double-take.

See Mark’s post for examples. (And here‘s an idiosyncratic but detailed look at how lu-shih works in its original Chinese context.)


  1. que votre verbe soit en joie
    Since this means little enough anyway, it may fairly be taken also as:
    que votre gerbe soit en voix
    (may your sheaf be in [good] voice)
    que votre gerbe voie en soi
    (may your sheaf see in itself)
    que votre serbe voie en joie
    (may your Serb see in joy)
    ce votre verbe, coi en joie
    (this Word of yours, silent in joy)
    ce votre verbe, joie en quoi?
    (this Word of yours, joy in what?)
    que votre berce voie en joie
    (may your cradle see in joy)
    ce votre verbe coi j’envoie
    (this silent Word of yours I send)
    And so on. Such wordplay always risks opening a wham of kerns.
    Mais dans ce jeu il faut toujours chercher le sens le plus osé, n’est-ce pas? That’s why “verge soit en bois” is the most compelling variant.

  2. Noetica, great effort. However, “ce votre” isn’t proper French, I don’t know the expression “être en voix”, a sheaf and a cradle can’t really see… I know that “un verbe en joie” is a rather daring metaphor, but still, I’m not sure your examples would qualify as valid contrepets: they have to make some sense at least 🙂

  3. A recent example of contrepet used in an official place was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then Minister of Finance, taking the pretext of a debate at the National Assembly on the economic crisis in Korea to say: “Ce cas de Corée me turlupine” (read: “Ce con de curé me tord la pine”).
    At the moment, nobody noticed (this was on a Wednesday, when Parliament sessions are televised live), but the readers of “Sur l’album de la Comtesse”, the contrepèterie column of the (old anarchist satirical weekly paper) Canard enchaîné.

  4. Ah, but Céline:
    While I would not sanction it except under the direst constraints of wordplay, even if it is uncanonic and rather weird, “ce votre” is indeed French that is used. With a Google search you can find examples that justify my playful constructions. Some examples are ungrammatical (and many seem to be slips for “de”), but others are acceptable or at least comprehensible:
    “Le souci de ce votre ordre du jour est libre pour les dates 19 – 20 août 2005.”
    Sometimes an elision of “que” seems involved, but not always.
    Great latitude is normally allowed in wordplay, and, as we agree, “que votre verbe soit en joie” sets a quirky tone to start with. My reworkings make a twisted sort of sense, too – and in any case I sought only to show that the move exhibited in the single case could be varied.
    Here is a poetic little palindrome I made, to test the reader’s tolerance once more:
    Elle et sa fenêtre…
    Pas ici, O ver d’accès!
    Porteur de nuit!
    Rapport trop parti.
    Une drue?
    Trop sec, Cadre!
    Voici sa perte néfaste…
    Again, a structural constraint dictates a twisting of normal sense, and a straining of comfortable syntax.

  5. O, in fact “ce vôtre” would be more classically correct. Maurice Grevisse (Le Bon Usage, 7th edition, 1961) cites strange uses of “tonic” forms of the possessive adjectives of the relevant genus, including these from standard modern authors:
    Il est mort un mien frère.
    Une conséquence de cette mienne position.
    Je suis vôtre.
    (p. 345, para. 424)
    And some truly archaic ones, in Old, Middle, and early Modern French:
    le mien visage
    ce mien livre
    Dieus vous rende la vostre ami!
    (p. 436, para. 508, note)
    A Google search on “ce vôtre” is illuminating also.

  6. Jimmy:
    “Ce cas de Corée me turlupine” (read: “Ce con de curé me tord la pine”)
    But this wouldn’t be strictly a contrepet, would it? I had thought a contrepet must simply permute the existing sounds. Le Petit Robert confirms this, first equating “contrepet” to “contrepèterie”, for which it gives:
    contrepèterie […] n. f.
    • 1582; de l’a. fr. contrepéter « rendre un son pour un autre »
    ¨ Interversion des lettres ou des syllabes d’un ensemble de mots spécialement choisis, afin d’en obtenir d’autres dont l’assemblage ait également un sens, de préférence burlesque ou grivois. Þ contrepet. Ex. Femme folle à la messe (Rabelais) pour femme molle à la fesse.
    So it’s like a spoonerism, yes?
    A correct, and brilliant, contrepet would be this:
    Ce CUL de curé me tord la pine.

  7. Dammit, a Google search finds that corrected contrepet, already in place. O well…
    Ce cul de curé, le Maure, patine.

  8. FINALLY, Le Petit Robert has this, in the entry for “voix”:
    Être en voix : se sentir dans de bonnes dispositions pour chanter.

  9. I’ve heard a couple in English, too. For example, this tongue twister:
    I’m not the pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son.
    And I’m only plucking pheasants till the pheasant plucker comes.
    The Smothers Brothers did a similar gag in the song “My Old Man’s a Sailor.”

  10. re: “ce vôtre” controversy.
    a google search for “ce votre” only shows (at least until the 12th page) the words in the context of an interrogative sentence (“est-ce votre …” – reversed form of “c’est votre”) which is a very different context from the one neotica was using.
    i am not saying it is not correct french, but only that it doesn’t sound “right” to a native speaker. which doesn’t change anything to the fact that the word plays are very funny !

  11. Noetica,
    You’re right, of course.
    In a sort of freudian slip (guess I was thinking about Aragon’s infamous erotic novel Le con d’Irène), I hastily wrote con instead of cul. I could use it as a proof of my decency, since many, if not most, French people forgot the first meaning of ‘con’ (cunt) and instead think of it as the mildest (and non-sexual) insult possible (a jerk, or something).
    Sauf cas très particulier, un curé ne saurait avoir un con, mais rien ne l’empêche d’en être un.

  12. As far as I can tell, “ce vôtre” might be possible, but it definitely sounds very archaic (meaning that the rest of the sentence would have to be on the same level), while “le vôtre” is a current form in modern French.

  13. Alexandre:
    Yes, I don’t say that all of the occurrences will be relevant. Of course you could filter out a number of irrelevant hits with a more sophisticated search, but you’d still have these:
    “Comment pouvons-nous dire que la nature de ce vôtre esprit joue le rôle de l’aubergiste vu que…”
    “Moi qui estime avoir fait juste choix en reconnaissant votre valeur, puis-je voir autre chose que même reconnaissance en ce vôtre nouvel emploi?”
    “Toutefois, il en est de ce vôtre exploit, comme de celui de Jacques Chirac – qui reconnut la responsabilité de la France dans le régime de Vichy.”
    “Adorez servilement Dieu[,] mon Seigneur et ce Vôtre!”
    And yes, of course it’s archaic, just like these in English:
    “that this your Order may be exact and not deficient” (Milton, Areopagitica).
    “and this your heave offering shall be reckoned unto you” (Bible, KJV).
    “This your son-in-law, and son unto the King, whom heavens directing, is troth-plight to your daughter” (Shakespeare).
    But as in French the form survives in modern archaic-sounding echoes:
    “We ask to be priests and guardians of this your temple” (Bulfinch).
    Does that sound right to a native speaker of English? Depends on the native speaker, I should say.
    And yes, Jimmy: d’ac, au sujet du curé et de son con qui n’existerait jamais.

  14. A naughtier contrepetrie is: il ampute une jambe
    Good luck with the swap.

  15. il ampute une jambe
    Il enjambe une pute? Tsk, Rethabile!
    Une huppe gentille amble…
    Enjambe une tulipe!

  16. Here are a few from last week’s “Sur l’album de la Comtesse”:
    – “Lully aurait été en Corée” (What’s up with Korea anyway? You need to know that there is a singer for teenagers called Lorie).
    – “‘Une actrice présentait son Anouilh et l’autre, Musset‘. Elle, Musset ? La sotte !” (on se croirait chez Sade)
    – “Titres : ‘La vieille Chine et l’Irak‘ [former singer Line Renaud is a close friend of the Chiracs] et ‘Poutine acculé sous une pluie d’oranges‘”.
    There are many others, but j’y pige que dalle.

  17. I wasn’t planning to post any other, but I could hardly resist the mise en abyme effect in this one, found in the current week’s Canard:
    “Faisant des ‘blogs’ avec un gros d’Arcachon, ce hacker blond sait que le spam, c’est pervers”.

  18. John Cowan says

    Le con d’Irène

    This makes me wonder if the non-U.S. use of cunt as ‘fool’ is a calque of con, which has undergone exactly the same semantic evolution.

    that this your Order may be exact and not deficient

    I think that’s just an apposition of this and your order before the use of commas to set off appositions became standardized. It doesn’t feel at all like il mio libro in Italian, where mio is a true adjective rather than a determiner as in English or French my book, mon livre.

  19. John Cowan says

    Bah, no 15 minute interval for corrections! I am told, with how much truth I don’t know, that in France the name of Sean Connerie was taken seriously enough to be removed from the advertising for Dr. No, his first James Bond movie.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Sean Connerie

    Day saved.

    (The only meaning I’ve encountered is “something stupid”, “a stupid thing to do”. Like a bêtise, only dumber.)

  21. John Cowan says

    The TLFI gives no other meaning, but does say vulg., so presumably it was once a fairly offensive term, something like assclown or pendejo lit. ‘pubic hair’ < VL *pectiniculus.

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