USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘French’
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Humor

“Il n’a pas la lumière à tous les étages.”

JN is a 19 year old student at USC studying neuroscience and French.  Most of her family lives in Chicago, but they’re from various European countries. She has travelled the world extensively, and she lived in France during the second semester of her sophomore year of high school. Here is a humorous example of French folk speech that she learned that year:

This is a French proverb that I learned when I was living in France.

It goes “il n’a pas de lumière sur toutes les étages.”
And that basically translates to the English version of “He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer” or “He’s missing his marbles” or something like that. So it literally means “He doesn’t have light on all of his floors” so it means, oh he’s kind of missing something, or he’s kind of “dim”.

Where did you learn this from?
I heard my host mom and dad say it a lot especially over the phone when they were talking to their friends. I understood the words and it kind of made sense to me that it was that French translation of our English expression. I overheard it from them and then asked what it meant and then I made the connection.

Why do you like it?
Because I learned it from my host parents and it’s definitely a colloquial French saying- it makes me feel more fluent in French to know those things that you can’t just learn the classroom. Plus I think it’s kind of funny!

 

My thoughts: I agree with JN when she says that when it comes to learning a new language, it is the colloquial expressions-the folk speech-that makes the leaner feel that they are truly a part of that culture. It was interesting to see that this French proverb had parallels in English with “the light’s on but no one is home” or even “not the brightest bulb in the box”- different languages and cultures have similar ways of expressing the same idea figuratively.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Tales /märchen

Dames Blanches

16) Dames Blanches

This is from out of french mythologies/folklores.

Dames Blanches are white dressed female spirits who supposedly appear near caves, caverns, bridges or ravines. These are not extremely evil spirits, but they would ask passersby to do certain things for them to pass.

Those who did what was asked of them were able to pass the road safely, while others that refused are tortured by animals that helped the dames blanches or thrown off somewhere.

Some believe that these were pre-christian goddesses.

(*For more information, check out White Woman of Dutch and Germanic mythologies.)

My french friend Cami told me about this story as her parents used to tell her this story to scare her from going out late at night. She has never encountered these situations herself so it was hard for her to perform it in a believable manner but overall it was cool and I definitely remember reading about similar versions of this story.

Folk speech
Proverbs

French Proverb

The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in France, and continued to live there until moving to the United States at age 15. His native language is French, and he did not learn English until after moving to the US.

I asked the informant to grab a cup of coffee on campus, and asked if he could share any French proverbs with me.

The proverb, in French, that he chose to share is: “Qui recherche la lune ne voit pas les étoiles.”

The English translation he provided is: “Someone who looks for the moon misses the stars.”

He said that the proverb is used as a small piece of advice used to let someone know that “if you try to accomplish something that’s near impossible to do, you will miss the things that are possible and that you can do.”

I thought that this proverb was a nice reminder to keep realistic expectations and not worry about factors in life that are outside of our control. It sounds very beautiful when spoken in French, and so I can see how this proverb’s aesthetic quality coupled to its meaning would make it popular among those who speak the language. Following my conversation with the informant, I would love to expand upon my knowledge of the French language and continue to learn more of the proverbs used by those who speak it.

Humor

The Louvre Heist

The informant is a second year student at the University of Southern California, studying History. He is from Chicago, IL, and he lived abroad in Rome when he was younger. At USC, he is involved with student affairs and television production.

This piece is one of the informant’s favorite jokes.

“A bunch of art thieves are escaping from the Louvre, and they’ve stolen millions of dollars worth of art, and they’re in this van. So they’re chasing down Paris, you know the cops are right behind them, and news camera are watching them, the eyes of the world are glued to these art thieves. And then, they pull into a gas station, and suddenly stop. The police cars pull right up to them, and encircle them, and boom! They caught ‘em.

So the reporters descend on them like vultures on a corpse, and they’re like, “Why didn’t you just get away? You were, you were by far like, you were gonna make it home free, you were not going to get caught, et cetera. The lead ringleader just looks at the reporter and he says [the informant adopts a French accent], “Uh, ve didn’t have de monay for de gas to make de van go.””

Analysis:

This joke has a long, narrative build up compared to a relatively short punchline. While the joke could still be told effectively in a question and answer format, it is clear that the informant gets a lot of enjoyment from setting the stage and describing a more elaborate and vivid setup. The punchline plays on the slight alterations in English pronunciation by native French speakers as well as the play on words—“monay” with “Monet,” “de gas” with “Degas,” and “van go” with “Van Gogh.” The setting contextualizes the joke further, providing the foundation for the French and art references in the joke.

 

Customs
Foodways
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

French Kiss Cookies

Me and my grandma, my Gigi, we would always make cookies together, these like these French cookies, they’re called like, Bisi or something, it’s “kisses,” like bissou, I think the plural is Bisi (Bises?), I can’t remember but you can just look it up. But we would always make them and she invented these cookies which she called them French kisses, and they’re basically like buttery as fuck, even though cause like French people love butter, like even though a lot of the stuff like in their pastries they love butter, in their croissants and stuff. And then we have this meal that we have every Christmas, I’m not good at this cause I don’t speak French, it’s called…oh it’s just Chicken Kiev, but you just change the chicken, whatever chicken is in French. But it’s so good, it has like cheese inside, you stuff the chicken, and there’s asparagus and different vegetables, and then you kinda pair it with like Ratatoui or stuff like that, so it’s kind of weird, but it’s good. And my great grandma has the recipe, she just died. It’s a really old family recipe. We have it every Christmas. Basically a lot of like, for us, how we’ve taken on our French culture is through food, so we have a lot of French food, and all those have come through my great grandma, it just keeps getting passed down. My great grandma lived in France, she was the first one from our family to come to America.

 

If you see my mom, she has black hair, like all my family has really dark brown hair and really tan skin, so they all call me white bread. Cause for some reason I came out like this, really blonde, blue eyed, like a little German kid. They all have green eyes.

 

ANALYSIS:

This is an example of a family tradition that has been kept alive and continued in an effort to preserve their original (French) heritage and nationality, even generations after having moved to America. It is apparent that even so, much of that tradition is being lost, as the informant doesn’t speak French or know what the cookies are called, or much about the French culture surrounding the food that her family makes. It seems that she has a very American view of French culture, but yet has a desire to hold onto and continue her family’s French traditions as best she can. Her family’s ethnic traditions are important to her, and this is one way for her to access this, through food. This ritual of making cookies and other dishes with her grandmother is her way of expressing or trying to get close to her French heritage, and it has become much more of a family ritual and tradition than a national one.

Folk speech
Proverbs

“French Children’s Proverb”

            A current professor of French at USC, the informant first learned this proverb from her grandmother when she was in grammar school. Now that she has a daughter of her own, the informant has repeated the proverb to her, and explained that most French parents say the proverb to their children from time to time after the child has had a rough day.

           In fact, the proverb was actually appropriated by the Countess of Ségur, a 19th century French children’s book author, for the title of a novel. Published in 1871, her novel Après la pluie, le beau temps is about the trials that befall a dysfunction French family.

 

            “Après la pluie, le beau temps” is a French proverb that means, literally, “After the rain, better weather.” Of course, as you can imagine, we use it to mean that, after a bad time, there will come a better time. There is a reason that adults say it to kids a lot, you know? Because kids are not used to bad times, they need to learn how to deal with them, really, they do. Maybe, then, the ending of the proverb is too optimistic? I don’t know. But to them, bad times and problems are like mountains, so the proverb gives a little perspective.

 

            The informant concisely unpacked much of the meaning that lies behind the proverb. It is true enough that children are often unsure of how to handle and overcome negative experiences, and so the proverb addresses not only the fact that we must all acknowledge the existence of bad times, but also that better times are waiting on the other side. The proverb does not say “When there is rain, there is better weather,” instead just stating rain as a given fact: “After the rain, better weather.” This way, children know to expect hardships and obstacles in their lives.

            However, the proverb also relies on an analogy to weather, introducing the theme of cyclicality and unpredictability. For one, the proverb suggests that rain will come in waves, time and time again; the bad times are just that―plural. Thus, children understand that, like the weather cycle, difficult times will arise periodically throughout life.

Folk speech
general
Humor
Proverbs

C’est La Vie

My informant tells me that the first time he heard the phrase, he was seven and complaining about the rain on a beach day. His mother then sighed, and said “C’est la vie”, which translated roughly into “Such is life.”

Me: “What does this saying mean to you?”

Informant: “It means that some times you can’t change things and just have to accept life as it is.”

Analysis: This proverb may also have to do with dealing with bad luck, as sometimes the world may seem to intentionally mess with your plans. It is a phrase often said when life isn’t fair, but one has to deal with life. Similar American sayings are, “That’s the way the ball bounces”, or the more slang term, “Shit happens.”

In modern American culture, a popular response to “C’est la vie” is, “la vie”, a pun on the pronunciation of the words. (C’est la vie = Say ‘la vie’). This joke was present in the romantic comedy film, Easy A, featuring Emma Stone and Penn Badgley.

Annotation: “Easy A (2010)”Box Office MojoAmazon.com. Retrieved January 27, 2011.

My informant was born in France, but currently goes to school at UC Irvine.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic

Merde

In the following, my informant recounts one of her pre-performance traditions:

So, in the last few days before we’re about to do a show, we have a tradition called “merde gifting,” where, everyone in the show buys everyone else a small present or treat, and like, it doesn’t have to , they don’t have to buy it, but, like, we make cookies, or little candies, or pencils, or even stuffed animals, it depends, but just something nice to give to the rest of the cast and show them you care about them. And then I guess the other part of it is, more than just giving gifts, you tell people merde before they go on stage, which is supposed to be like, good luck. It comes from french and I think it means “shit” and it means good luck on stage, don’t step in shit, because apparently cows would poop onstage in the olden times or something, I don’t know, but yeah, we tell each other merde and give each other presents before a show.

Although my informant does not know exactly where this tradition comes from, she believes it is derived from something more closely related to the meaning behind merde. However, by now it has simply come to mean “good luck,” and my informant and her fellow performers have expanded upon the word to include gifts, and other ways of showing support. Apparently it is part of a number of traditions designed to foster support among the cast before a show, and has been around for a long time.

Folk Beliefs
Myths

Nightmare

Informant Bio

My informant is an office manager living in Hollywood, California. He grew up in the midwestern United States and moved to Los Angeles to attend USC’s graduate program in film production. He now does media work in an office at USC, and in his spare time stays active with creative endeavors like creating web videos and writing a web comic that updates twice weekly. He completes the daily crossword puzzle at lunch every day, and is the type of person who probably always wins Trivial Pursuit.

The Cauchemar

I was chatting with my informant (my boss) at our office – near the water cooler, yes,  it actually happens – and he told me a strange story about his roommate who had recently attempted astral projection (magical transportation of her consciousness to another place) by putting herself into a meditative state. Though her attempt was not successful, she did descend deep enough into her meditation that she had a dreamlike vision of a small, humanoid creature sitting in darkness. She asked it, “what are you doing?” It replied, “waiting.” Frightened by the image, she quickly snapped herself out of her meditative state.

My boss thought the creature sounded like a cauchemar. The cauchemar, he explained, is a demon-like creature whose name means “nightmare” in French. He had first learned of it from a friend who lived in Louisiana, though he suspected stories about the creature had been brought to Louisiana by the French because the myth “seems European.”

According to my informant, the cauchemar is an evil creature, that chooses its victims at random. It sits on your chest while you sleep and either: rides your sleeping body where ever it likes, or sucks the breath out of you, killing you slowly while you sleep. My informant thought that the cauchemar sounded like an explanation someone might have given for conditions that cause sleepers to wake in the middle of the night feeling pressure on their bodies, like sleep apnea.

Because the cauchemar does not discriminate when it chooses a victim, it seems to me to be a simple personification of nightmares. Its impossible to control whether or not one will have a nightmare, and that lack of control, especially while vulnerable (unconscious), is frightening. Giving them a face makes nightmares easier or us to understand, and even if depicted as a hideous, malicious creature, this is comforting.

Authored Forms

This painting of the creature from the 1700s  by Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Fussili supports my informant’s suspicion that the mythological creature may have been brought to the United States from Europe. It depicts an impish creature with large ears and fur covering its body, sitting on the chest of a woman in white. In spite of its comical appearance, the distressed pose of the sleeping woman, and the alarmed face of her horse suggest that this is indeed a creature to be feared.

Cited

Image found at: “Cauchemar.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 4 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cauchemar>.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

French Idioms: It’s All About Food (Or Is It?)

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So French sayings… there are some sayings that I’ve told you before, one of them would be, ‘Ok the deal is done. You say, the carrots are cooked.’ The original version is “Les carrottes sont cuites.”

Interviewer: “And where did you first hear that?”

Informant: “Well, I was growing up.  Ok, now I am drinking out of a bottle. And this is the last drop, and I would say normally, ‘hey, the bottle is empty.’ But now I can say, ‘La fin des haricots’. ‘It’s the end of the beans!'”

Interviewer: “So ‘the end of the beans’ is a drinking saying?”

Informant: “No, it’s just something that you say. There is no more beans.  It’s kind of interchangeable with the other one that says the carrots are cooked. It’s done, it’s finished. It’s ready to eat in one case, and in the other case you have to go and get more.”

Analysis: 

An important aspect of French culture is French cuisine, and this love for food can even be seen in French expressions.  The first expression, “Les carrottes sont cuites” or in English “the carrots are cooked” is an idiom expressing that the event is over, or as my informant put it “the deal is done.”  This expression came from the idea that you would cook your carrots with your meat.  For this reason, the cooked carrots were associated with death. Therefore, “les carrottes sont cuites”  is a colloquial expression used ironically in a serious situation.  It means that something has gone disastrous, or that “it is all over”.  This expression can be used when the situation is very serious, but the person using the expression is trying to make light of the situation.  Such as a business deal that has gone bad.  I have also heard my informant use this expression humorously after we opened Christmas presents together.  He looked at all the discarded wrapping paper on the ground and exclaimed, “Les carrottes sont cuites!” 

The other expression mentioned, “la fin des haricots”, is interchangeable with the previous expression because both are referring to something that is over in a tragic way. This expression is fairly new in French language, as opposed to the pervious expression.  It refers to the idea that if you are eating the beans you are eating the last of your stored food. Thus, it’s all over!  I had never heard my informant use this expression perviously to the interview.

My informant was born to Hungarian immigrants in 1928 Paris, France.  He later immigrated to California in 1947, having spent much of War World II in hiding due to his Jewish heritage.  He holds multiple citizenships in both the United States and France.  He now lives in Manhattan Beach, California with his wife and has three children and five grandchildren.

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