I’m still reading Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (see this post), and it’s so good that when we finished the latest Wodehouse novel and my wife was still awake, she asked me to read some of the Robb (which I was reading for myself), and she liked it so much that it’s become our nightly reading. I’ll quote some excerpts relating to language; from Chapter 3:

The paysans had no flags or written histories, but they expressed their local patriotism in much the same way as nations: by denigrating their neighbors and celebrating their own nobility.

The vast and vulgar repertoire of village nicknames is the best surviving evidence of this sub-national pride. A few flattering names have been officially adopted, like Colombey-les-Belles — now said to refer to the local women but perhaps originally applied to cows. But if all the nicknames had been adopted, the map of France would now be covered with obscenities and incomprehensible jokes. In one small part of Lorraine, there were the ‘wolves’ of Lupcourt, whose local saint was Saint Loup, the ‘greencoats’ of Remereville, whose tailor had once produced a batch of jackets in green cloth that never wore out, and the ‘big pockets’ of Saint-Remimont, whose tailor cut his coats much longer than anyone else. There were the ‘shit-arses’ (culs crottés) of Moncel-sur-Seuille, whose mud was unusually clingy, the ‘hoity-toitys’ (haut-la-queue) of Art-sur-Meurthe, who lived near the big city of Nancy, and the ‘sleepers’ of Buissoncourt-en-France, who dug a mighty moat around their village and lived in happy seclusion behind a drawbridge.

And from Chapter 4 (which has an amazing map of languages and dialects on pages 58-59):

The dormancy of the local language could create the impression — often a false impression — that it was disappearing. For the last hundred and fifty years, examples of ‘pure’ patois have been collected from people invariably described as ‘old’, as if a separate, senescent species somehow propagates itself and its language without ever growing young. Generation after generation, countless people said the same thing: that the old language was spoken only by the old people. A woman in the small Alsatian town of Thann told me this (in French) in 2004. She was probably born in the early 1970s. It turned out, however, that when she talked to her little daughter at home, she used Alsatian. The younger woman who was with her was introduced — and introduced herself — as an example of the generation that has almost forgotten the language and will see the last speakers of it die away. Yet she, too, spoke Alsatian with her mother and grandmother. She also took many of her school classes in Alsatian. She could easily have told me in Alsatian that Alsatian was dying out.


  1. Sartres’ mother was an Alsatian, hence his love of sauerkraut. If I ever had an alsatian I would name it Sartres or perhaps Goxwiller, after Simone de Beauvoir’s sister’s funny-looking* house in Goxwiller in Alsace.
    *Imagine opening the doors in the archway below the staircase; what do you see? The heights are all wrong.

  2. Sartres’s mother was a German shepherd dog? Who knew?

  3. Myself, I’m a “clyichard” (person suffering from diarrhoea), that being the nickname for someone from Saint Helier. Of course, as a Jerseyman I’m a crapaud as well. The first chapter of my recent book “The Toad and the Donkey” explores the use in vernacular literature of the local nicknames in Jersey and Guernsey that give the book its title.

  4. Zythophile: Sartres’ mother was a German shepherd dog? Who knew?
    That may be just an insinuation on the part of the Crowne that Sartre is an SOB.

  5. Is there a French expression denoting “village nicknames” of this kind ? There may not be one outside of linguist circles, if even there. There is a vaguely similar practice in Germany for which there is no familiar designation – at least I have never heard it, if it exists.
    In Cologne, particularly on the weekends, one sees a lot of cars from small towns in the vicinity. Recognizable from the license plates, they are deemed to be transporting bumpkins to the discos and clubs of the big city. Bornheim has BM on the plates, which is interpreted to mean “Bauernmeute” [pack of farmers] or something like that. This mocking game is played with any license plate abbreviation containing at least two letters, so big cities are out of the running (the number of letters correlates inversely with the size of the municipality).
    Since it’s been so long since I’ve heard one of these a jokey interpretation of licence plate letters, I decided to search the internet for an example. This requires thinking up suitable search words. So, in order to find examples of a practice for which I imagine that there is no designation, I had to decide on a characterization. I used “KFZ Kennzeichen Witz“, and found “Autowitze in der Kategorie Autokennzeichen“. It is but a small step from a characterization to a designation. Sigh.

  6. @ Grumbly Stu “Is there a French expression denoting “village nicknames” of this kind ?”: blason populaire –

  7. We could put our heads together and try to make a good one for K=Köln. That hilarious list that you linked does do some one-letter Kennzeichen, you know. It’s only fair.

  8. Øttøman: That hilarious list that you linked does do some one-letter Kennzeichen
    I suspect that of being factitious hundredpercentedness on the part of the list compiler. There’s not much room for wit with one letter. The list has behämmert [stupid] for Berlin and farbenblind [color-blind] for Frankfurt. I forgot to mention that the game is frequently played on the autobahns, to characterize the bad driving practices of people from XYZ.
    What do you suggest for Köln ? There is a belief, at least among Cologne taxi drivers, that people in Cologne are over-careful drivers – in particular that they slow down to a snail’s pace when it starts to rain (this seems to be true, but I don’t know that it’s specific to Cologne). One could thus call them Klosterfahrer, on the analogy with Geisterfahrer [“ghost driver” = motorist driving unknowingly against the traffic on motorways, appearing suddenly on your side of the road, driving toward you].
    blason populaire
    What is the etymology of clyichard ? The only association I have is with clystère, but that doesn’t make sense. By the way, I read that wonderful near-Jersey novel The Book of Ebenezer Le Page this year. My sister recommended it to me in the course of a conversation about Kyril Bonfiliogli, whose books we are both fans of.

  9. the ‘hoity-toitys’ (haut-la-queue)
    Is it cats who sometimes stretch their tails up in stately procession ? No other animal does so, as far as I can remember – that is, among domesticated animals in Europe and America. I think temple monkeys in Asia have their tails up much of the time, but primarily for balance – at least it appears so in television documentaries.

  10. For several years now, traffic reporters on the radio no longer refer to Geisterfahrer, but instead to Falschfahrer. The reason for this change, as I heard somewhere, was that the jocular term “ghost driver” plays down the danger which such a person represents.
    You can still count on conscientiously serious people in Germany, although much has eased up over the decades. You hardly hear the standard word Gefängnis [prison] in the media any more, only in everyday conversations. It’s now officially called Justizvollzugsanstalt [institution where justice is carried out].

  11. Etymology of clyichard: in Jèrriais, the verb is clyichi – to squirt, spurt. Dictionaries seem to suggest the origin is either in onomatopoeia or that it’s cognate with the French éclisser. We have êclyichi for squirt as well in Jèrriais, and splinter is êclyîn, but whether spurts and splinters are connected by more than coincidence in sound, I don’t know.
    Clyiche/clliche/cliche seems widespread for diarrhoea across Normandy. Both Métivier’s Dictionnaire Franco-Normand and Yard’s Le Parler Normand recount that inhabitants of Bayeux were nicknamed “les clichards”.
    Yard quotes Delboulle’s Glossaire de la vallée d’Yères (1876): “Clichard est un sobriquet que l’on donne aux habitants de Bayeux, parce que, suivant une vielle tradition, pour les punir d’avoir chassé leur évêque Saint Gerbold, Dieu les affligea de lianteries et d’hémorroïdes.”
    The most likely explanation for the inhabitants of important towns being nicknamed thus, though, is that the crowded urban centres, with regular influxes of people for markets and festivals, were proverbially unsanitary until the introduction of modern drainage and clean water supply.

  12. Geraint, I thought I understood lianterie, but I found only lienterie in the TLF. My Petit Robert doesn’t even have that.
    What it had reminded me of was fienterie, which is not attested in either dictionary but occurs a few times in the internet. Here is something supposedly by Céline, at a website where you can write to famous people and get snarky answers:

    Regardez vos guignols, chianterie en costar qui vous dirigent avec la démocratie à la gueule tel un furoncle, cul de poule ouvert à force de fienterie, peigne cul de la haute, jean foutre de la finance …

    But I did encounter the useful expression avoir du liant.

  13. Stu, why do they have (p.43) B (Berlin) : Berliner? Is it doughnut? Also, why does that site have Chuck Norris jokes, what’s that about?

  14. why does that site have Chuck Norris jokes
    It’s a general joke site, run by Willi. It needs editing: B also occurs on page 3, and Berliner are not hammered, but hand-crafted and simply-connected. I still don’t know how the holes get into doughnuts, though.

  15. Geraint: Thanks for the reference to the Glossaire de la vallée d’Yères (1876). I have a house in said vallée – or more exactly on the plateau above it – and I’ll have to try to track the book down in a local library.
    Though I’m a bit surprised about the reference to Bayeux, as the Yères is in Haute Normandie above Dieppe and near the border of Picardy. I can find no other river of the name in Normandy.

  16. Stu, surely berliners are the ones without holes but with strawberry jam? I only found two references to Hansestadt Hamboich, perhaps HH isn’t long enough, perhaps they are too busy making the jokes.

  17. As I wrote long ago, doughnuts are exvaginated Berliners, i.e. the hole is on the outside.

  18. That’s some sort of topological joke and I don’t do math.

  19. @ Grumbly Stu: Lianterie – the source spells it that way; regional variation, perhaps?
    @ Paul : The perennial argument over whether there’s one pluricentric Norman language, or several Norman languages, is reflected in the fact that Norman dictionaries tend to focus narrowly on a particular variety, but then cross-reference cognates fairly randomly across the territory of the Duchy. Hence, both Métivier (Guernsey – in the extreme West) and Delboulle (in the extreme East) reference Bayeux (which I think of as mid-Western). Yard’s lexicon, incidentally, focuses on the language spoken where Caux, Bray and Vexin meet.
    And to bring the comment back to blasons populaires: in Guernsey, each parish has its nickname. Inhabitants of St Andrew are les croinchaons (siftings, what remains in the sieve). Since it’s the only parish without a coastline, and the natural way of listing the parishes is to go round the coast either one way or the other, St Andrew is always left last on the list.
    Also in Guernsey, they claim, rather hilariously, that cllichard, as applied to inhabitants of St Peter Port, doesn’t refer to diarrhoea but to spitting. Well, if that makes them feel happier about it…

  20. Is it cats who sometimes stretch their tails up in stately procession ? No other animal does so, as far as I can remember
    Skunks are only occasionally domesticated, but they do that. I once saw a mother skunk with four junior skunks trotting along behind her, and they all had their tails proudly in the air. Skunks are very attractive creatures except for one little thing.

  21. By the way, I read that wonderful near-Jersey novel The Book of Ebenezer Le Page this year. My sister recommended it to me
    I recommended it to you back in 2008.

  22. Too early ! That was Feb 2008, I arrived in Dec 2008 or Jan 2009.

  23. Bill Walderman says

    Thanks for recommending the Robb book. It has interrupted Zhizn’ i sud’ba.

  24. people in Cologne are over-careful drivers
    So maybe Kriecher. I feel that one should probably stick to driving-related expressions in this game*. If not, I suppose that something all-purpose like Kleinschwanz would do.
    * Not that everybody does so at the website. A recurring swine theme, I see. Not to mention a couple of African countries. A strange glimpse of a German brand of racism or xenophobia.

  25. Bathrobe says

    Newer countries are less pettily local but still manage to come up with disparaging names for others. Like Sand Groper, Crow-Eater, and Banana-Bender in Australia.

  26. Kinda-sorta related: in northern B. C. at least two towns have had there names popularly edited, Fort St. John to Forskin Johnny and Fort St. John to Forskin Jimmy. I heard this in the seventies, so it may no longer be true.
    @ Grumbly & AJP: my father, who worked in a major bakery in Victoria from the forties to the seventies, called ‘jelly donuts’ (which I never heard until the nineties) Bismarcks.

  27. This brings us right back to the topic of typical German humor. Wiki pedia says
    “A common German practical joke is to secretly fill some Berliners with mustard instead of jam and serve them together with regular Berliners without telling anyone.”

  28. That may be humor typical of adolescents, but not of Germans. Is there such a thing as typically American humor ?

  29. In this area (MN) jelly donuts are still called Bismarcks, I think.

  30. Stu, I wasn’t really casting stones or aspersions. If I myself sometimes find mild amusement in statements like “A common German practical joke is …”, I wouldn’t want anyone to draw conclusions about what amuses Americans.

  31. Germans are always putting mustard in places where it doesn’t belong. Bellay wrote about it. I don’t know why Grumpy is defending the Germans. Probably just from fear because he lives among them.
    [Actually, it was the Swiss Bellay wrote about. So sue me.]

  32. What do they do with Senf in Genf?

  33. marie-lucie says

    AJP: Sartre’s mother was called Anne-Marie Schweitzer, a not very distant relative of Albert Schweitzer.
    Simone de Beauvoir’s sister’s funny-lookng* house in Goxwiller in Alsace. … *Imagine opening the doors in the archway below the staircase; what do you see? The heights are all wrong.
    AJP, I think that the regular entrance for humans must be up the stairway which starts on the left, and the green door below is probably the entrance to a cellar and/or animal quarters, probably with a floor of beaten earth at first sloping down inward from the entrance. The low height of that door probably reflects both the shorter stature of most people several centuries ago and the sinking of the house and buildup of the soil around it, making the lower floor lower than the current ground level. Many old, humble French houses have a low main door and a couple of steps leading down into the house for the second reason (because of insufficient foundation (?) the stone walls sink into the ground over time). In the house in question, the main floor is accessed through the stairway on the outside, and the top floor must have once been a granary or hayloft, later probably transformed into additional living quarters.

  34. John: Germans are always putting mustard in places where it doesn’t belong.
    Actually it’s Americans who do that. I seem to remember it in cheese sandwiches, and/or with ketchup – sheesh ! Kraft durch mustard.
    Over the past few years, television chefs have been trying to wean polite German society from Bockwurst. It just ain’t gonna happen – because of the mustard habit, you see.

  35. Bockwurst is a fine thing, and Weisswurst is even finer, but mustard, ftekh! I am not so German as all that.

  36. marie-lucie says

    Americans putting mustard in everything: it is because American mustard is so weak! Hardly stronger than mayonnaise, so they use it with a heavy hand. Try real moutarde forte. You can’t slather this French mustard on the cold cuts in your sandwich and expect to live beyond the first bite.

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