The Metaphorical Beast.

Joshua Yaffa’s New Yorker piece on the Wagner Group (archived) has a moment of Franco-Hattic interest:

One thing, however, has remained constant: the principle of “se servir sur la bête,” as Christophe Gomart, the former head of French military intelligence, put it, an expression that means “to serve yourself from the beast,” or, better yet, to get your pound of flesh.

But the expression (alternatively “se payer sur la bête“) means “en parlant d’un créancier, se faire payer en prenant directement sur le salaire, les revenus de son débiteur” [of a creditor, to take payment directly from the salary or income of the debtor], so “to get your pound of flesh,” which implies unjust and cruel extraction, is not right. I think the best English equivalent in this context would be simply “getting paid.”


  1. In my understanding there’s a sense of profiteering from a dominant position or otherwise abusing a one-sided advantage to the detriment of the other — or indeed in more idiomatic English, to get your pound of flesh.

  2. OK, I guess I can see that — I’m probably too fixated on the Shakespearean origin of the phrase.

  3. Or as my Petit Robert succinctly but clearly says under se payer, se payer sur la bête means “tirer profit d’un mauvais payeur”. Emphasis on tirer profit. I suppose it could merely mean benefit from, which is of course trivially true of any lender, but I’m fairly sure they mean take advantage of.

    And while I was wondering why the Larousse seemed so… neutral, I noticed you’d left out the latter part of the phrase! 😉

    en parlant d’un créancier, se faire payer en prenant directement sur le salaire, les revenus de son débiteur ou bien, si ce dernier est une femme, en tirant d’elle des satisfactions charnelles.

  4. The question is how it sounds when said by a head of intelligence about mercenaries. It is equally plausible that he would use neutral words (because head of intelligence) or not.
    I suppose Frans means that the second is true.

  5. On the origin of the idiom, note the entry bête (se payer sur la) in Le petit citateur (1869), p. 52.

  6. Whoa, I see the bit that I left out as a distraction might be the original sense! Thanks for digging that up.

  7. @drasvi
    I’ll preface this by saying French is my fourth language in every sense, but I’m not aware of the phrase itself being neutral. And as stated above, I think talking about “taking directly from wages or sexual favors in case of a woman” puts the taking in a rather different light, not neutral at all.

    If we look for other definitions some explicitly refer to the debtor as a victim.

    Faire payer à sa victime qqchose, profiter d’une situation de domination pour bénéficier de qqchose, pour se rembourser d’une dépense (économiquement, sexuellement, etc.)

    Though I’ll peeve that something being the original sense needn’t mean it’s the current sense (except I believe it is).

  8. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    The TLFi has only the pejorative sexual meaning, though it also has a disclaimer that it isn’t being updated to keep up with evolving usage.

    I’d venture a guess that the French intelligence officer is quite happy to imply the Wagner group is systematically engaged in raping the countries whose governments it assists.

    I don’t get precisely the same accusation from the Shakespearean pound of flesh, but I suppose that’s the closest English can get.

    Tangentially, in Italian “getting paid in kind” unambiguously has the pejorative sexual meaning if applied to one male creditor and one female debtor, but it also has the more general and anodyne meaning it has in English.

  9. “Niger is seen as the last reliable partner for the West in efforts to battle jihadists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and Western countries have vied for influence in the fight against extremism.”
    (The Telegraph)

    Yes, yes, this is exactly what everyone is vying for in Africa: the fight against extremism!

  10. Let’s not get into the politics, thanks.

  11. @LH, I meant the formulation. I don’t think that anyone here believes that “fight against extremism” is what anyone is vying for, so I do not expect any controversy. I also don’t think that my sentiments (it is the region i’m interested in in various ways, warfare bothers me, participation of my country in it bothers me) are unusual here, but the comment was about the formulation.
    P.S. i think, abstaining from irony about the situation is above me:(

  12. What formulation? You’ve quoted an entirely irrelevant passage from the Torygraph (not a lovable site in itself), and gone on about entirely irrelevant issues. Obviously I don’t ordinarily mind changes of subject, but as I said I’d appreciate it if it doesn’t involve politics.

  13. @LH, I was trying to find the interview with Christophe Gomart, in English or in French. The link to this article was in a more recent article “French intelligence hits back at Macron over its ‘failure’ to predict Niger coup” that also quotes from Christophe Gomart, so I hoped to find something in there.

    As for politics: I’m reading Touareg grammars (more than one). My country is “fighting against exremism” and Touaregs are massively present among those “extremists”. Am I supposed to feel something about it? I do, but not much beyond simply feeling sad about the situation. I don’t think anyone here supports my country’s effort in “fight against extremism” and I don’t support it too, so I do not expect any controversy.

  14. What formulation? – just answering: journalists are too used to calling miliatary assistance to governments “fight against exremism”, supposedly a good thing, but it turns out that certain countries are competing for the opportunity to take part in doing this “good thing”, which results in the formulation I ironised about – just like you ironised about Torygraph.

  15. There’s talk of a repossession (under French law) of a fur coat in Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn at this point:

  16. @LH, a shorter explanation: I find the phrase very peculiar and I laughed when I saw it. You did not. That’s all.

  17. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    So that’s what Danish authorities do when they tell your employer to divert up to 20% of your paycheck (after withholdings) to pay some debt. (Disputed parking fees, back taxes, their own mistaken excess pensions payouts, anything they can think of). Sadly I rarely have occasion to discuss the Danish tax system with Francophones.

    (But I think many of the victims of this practice will agree with the connotations of the Shakespearean phrase).

  18. So that’s what Danish authorities do when they tell your employer to divert up to 20% of your paycheck (after withholdings) to pay some debt. (Unpaid parking fees, back taxes, anything they can think of).

    That’s usual practice in most jurisdictions I’ve worked in. If you’ve parked illicitly and then failed to pay the fine in reasonable time, failed to pay legitimate taxes, or restitution for a crime you’ve committed, or alimony: that doesn’t make you a “victim”; it makes you a aggravated/repeat offender.

    And very comparable to the pound of flesh: Antonio had previously been a total shit; Antonio had freely — even arrogantly — entered into a deal; Shylock was entirely justified in holding to the terms of the deal. Antonio is no sort of “victim”. It’s only due to Portia’s weaseling that Antonio wriggles out of a legitimate obligation. My sympathies are all with Shylock — and then he gets further shafted.

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    I think the key words here are licit and legitimate. I suppose Lars might reasonably feel that a disputed parking (or speeding, e.g., when the limit has just changed and is badly marked) fine is illicit and a tax for a purpose most voters do not agree with (or where the Government wastes taxpayers’ money through incompetence or corruption) is illegitimate. But I agree that way lies anarchy (although Hat might approve), I also agree about Shylock, although you have to give Shakespeare credit for not following in Marlowe’s footsteps. (Has “the Iew of Malta” bedn cancelled?)

  20. @Giacomo I don’t know to what extent it implies rape these days? But my point is that leaving that part out of the somewhat oddly written Larousse definition makes it sound like a perfectly reasonable up to 20%, while putting it back in completely changes the meaning of the first part of the sentence to something in line with every other dictionary. Put another way, that implies at least 20% rather than up to 20%.

  21. I couldn’t think of an English term for this, so I searched TvTropes and found the trope “Sexual Extortion”, which says, ‘in Real Life this is called “quid pro quo harassment”‘.

  22. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Frans: No disagreement from me!

    On the other hand, it turns out dictionaries do disagree. Larousse bridges the wide gap between the two online dictionaries I’m used to.

    Here’s the TLFi going all-out negative:

    Loc. péj. [Le suj. désigne un homme] Se payer sur la bête. Avoir des rapports sexuels avec une femme qui ne peut s’acquitter en argent. Elle n’avait pas un sou et il s’était payé sur la bête (ARNOUX, Paris, 1939, p.248).

    And here’s the Académie being completely anodyne:

    Expr. fig. et fam. Se payer sur la bête, directement, sans intermédiaire, en nature.

  23. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    We currently have a debacle with a new property valuation law where the authority in charge has decided to ignore part of the existing data and charge property taxes based on the data they understand. You are not even allowed to enter a complaint before 2025 or so, because they don’t “have time” to process complaints yet. (There is an overarching law of public governance that says they have to respond to requests for reevaluation within two weeks, it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the courts).

    Anyway, the point here is that even if you have sent in documentation showing that your property taxes should not have been raised, you have to pay the increased amount until your case is decided some time after 2025. If you don’t, they will take it out of your paycheck. That is at best problematic. People won’t even be able to buy another house because they are registered with a debt to a public institution.

  24. Trond Engen says

    mollymooly: [TV Tropes on “Sexual Extortion”:] “in Real Life this is called “quid pro quo harassment””

    So how many quids for a quo?

  25. The usual verb in (American) English for taking money directly out of a debtor’s paycheck is garnish. This seems to be the last surviving evidence of the fact that garnish is a doublet with warn (mediated through French, as you might expect from initial consonant). In this case, the connection is that the garnishing originally referred to the advisory notice that funds were going to be deducted this way. The more common sense of garnish evolved from a sense meaning “add to; provision,” previously applied with respect to fortifications that had been advised to be ready to defend themselves.

  26. i don’t know why the URL i posted for “Love in the Afternoon” wasn’t clickable, but here’s another try:

    the discussion of seizing a fur piece for debt is one hour and twenty-two minutes in.

  27. @Peter Desmond: The original link worked fine for me. However, in the scene you linked to, the repossession of the ermine coat Maurice Chevalier is talking about was not for any kind of debt.

  28. I was curious about the identity of Jules Choux, author of Le petit citateur cited above, and I found this short article by Léon Dierx, ‘Cinquantenaire de la mort de Jules Choux’, Mercure de France, 15 April 1924, middle of page 565, available here. (The reference to Choux made by Huysmans and mentioned by Dierx can be found here.)

  29. I guess Russian analog of this double entendrish expression is “брать/получать натурой”. Which can be translated neutrally as “get payed in kind”.

  30. in Italian “getting paid in kind”

    the english parallel (similarly contextual) would be “taking it out in trade”.

  31. Perfect!

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    The legal-jargon sense of “garnish” which Brett mentioned has given rise to related legal-jargon terms like “garnishee” and “garnishment,” which AFAIK are not used in connection with other senses of the verb. Opinions may differ in any given case whether the “victim” in such a situation is the person whose wages are being garnished or the creditor who, some court has concluded (not always after particularly searching inquiry …), has unjustly not been paid whatever sum was legitimately due and owing.

  33. Yeah, I’m pretty much automatically going to side with the garnishee, just as I pretty much automatically side with tenants against landlords, workers against bosses, and soldiers against officers, unless there are very clear reasons for making an exception in a given case.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    How about a situation framed as “struggling single mom v. deadbeat dad whose wages are being garnished because he’s behind on paying his court-ordered child support”? That’s a pretty common real-world scenario in which garnishment is employed. Although now I fear we may be halfway toward talking about the merits vel non of the recent coup d’etat in Niger …

  35. Yeah, that’s the kind of case I mean. But that’s not (unless I am much mistaken) the usual case, even if it’s “pretty common.”

  36. J.W. Brewer says

    According to this 2016 research* (which of course may not be definitive – there’s no doubt a larger literature), child support obligations were the most common reason for wage garnishment in the U.S., accounting for just under half of all garnishees, with the next largest bucket being “student debt and consumer loans” and the one after that being “tax levy.” As to the last I would suggest that people who have ended up seriously behind on their taxes are a very heterogenous group in terms of what an appropriate moral attitude toward them might be, ranging from extremely sympathetic individual cases to extremely unsympathetic individual cases. Perhaps things are otherwise in other countries.

    *The constituency served by the folks behind the research are basically those who handle payroll for the current employers of the garnishees, who are not particularly pro-garnishment because it’s an administrative hassle imposed on them plus it can lead to having stressed-out and/or disgruntled employees, which is suboptimal from a morale and productivity standpoint.

  37. OK, I was much mistaken, and I withdraw my ignorant remark!

  38. PlasticPaddy says

    In Ireland employees have their taxes deducted at source (it is possible for employers to fail to pay their contribution, but the employee can see on their payslip what the employer is contributing). So tax levies (general ones also appear on the payslip and the self-employed are not exempt) mostly apply to self-employed (for criminals or money-launderers, there is specific and perhaps draconian criminal legislation). I would suppose the sums extracted are insignificant compared to seizures of criminal assets or to the sums collected from employees and employers, and, as you say, the extenuating circumstances vary. Re child support, there was a time when divorced/separated fathers fled the UK and relocated to Ireland to avoid having it taken out of their pay. I do not know if this is still happening.

  39. OK, I was much mistaken, and I withdraw my ignorant remark!

    Ah, that’s a relief. And thank you @JWB. I have actually worked in payroll administration and for the Justice department in administering these deductions and getting them directed to the “struggling single mom”s and/or the struggling wage-slave who got their only means of transport to their job wrecked by a drunken hooligan or got beaten up so badly they’re unable to work at all let alone pay the medical bills.

    It is extraordinary difficult in the legal system to identify these miscreants (they typically maintain several aliases), find them/their sources of income (they frequently move address/employer, they’re frequently beneficiaries under several of their aliases, as well as working in the informal economy [**]), and pin them down enough to pay up — in typically tiny instalments as directed by the courts, and such that the legal and admin costs wipe out nearly all the proceeds to the victim.

    I do find it weird to call this process “garnishing”.

    [**] A little like Supreme Court justices who apparently can enjoy all sorts of gifts-in-kind from wealthy ‘friends’ without needing to declare any of it.

  40. Although prior to this discussion I had never (so far as I can remember) seen data on the relative numbers, if you had asked me yesterday what was the most common reason in this country for someone’s wages to be garnished, I would have immediately guessed it was child support. While it’s not something I hear about all the time, it’s definitely something that seems to be quite common.

  41. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    the english parallel (similarly contextual) would be “taking it out in trade”.

    Thank you! Very happy to learn this expression. I suppose it would have been the perfect translation of the French.

  42. J.W. Brewer says

    By comparison to the situation in many other countries, personal bankruptcy law in the U.S. is unusually debtor-friendly. But it cannot be used to wipe out ongoing child support obligations (including, I believe, past-due arrears) the way it can be used to wipe out e.g. credit card debt or other sorts of unsecured consumer debt. Which ceteris paribus will mean that certain sorts of coercive debt-collection mechanisms will end up being disproportionately used by the specific types of creditors from whom the bankruptcy court will not save you before things get to that stage.

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