Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Petty Delights

I love etymology. I am delighted to steal from Jeff Jarvis, for the one thing I can post on what I find to be the quite confusing turn of events in France. It is typical of me that this post is about words and not deeds:

Jarvis points me to this wonderful piece from the Guardian by Sheila Pulham (yes, Grauniad to many):

Much has been made of Nicolas Sarkozy's description of the French rioters as "racaille", a derogatory term held to have fuelled the nationwide spread of the violent disturbances over the past week. The term, widely translated in the British media as "scum", actually equates more closely to "rabble". (The Guardian, which has also used "scum" on a number of occasions, will be using "rabble" from now on.)

Laurent Greilsamer in Le Monde investigates the etymology and changing meaning of the word, which has taken on a totemic significance since its utterance by Mr Sarkozy. The word came from Provençal, was introduced into French in the 15th century, and was, he says, in common parlance until 10 days ago. It had even been appropriated by disaffected young people to describe themselves, he says - a view supported by the vivelesracailles site, which starts with the line "After all, it's not a crime to live in your pyjamas".

Greilsamer consults the French dictionary Le Petit Robert, which defines racaille as "populace méprisable" - contemptible populace or rabble - and gives examples from the works of Camus and Gide. "Will the next edition cite Nicolas Sarkozy?" he asks. "It would be appropriate. The interior minister hoisted the word to the highest point of its semantic load when he assured a resident of Argenteuil, in front of a TV camera: 'We will rid you of this rabble.' At a blow the word has again become taboo and politically incorrect."

Turning to the Littré dictionary of 1873, Greilsamer finds the word defined as "even more derogatory than canaille (scoundrel)" and observes that Sarkozy has at a single blow restored the word to its original meaning "The word racaille is dangerous, explosive and literally incendiary," he concludes.

Don't call a racaille a racaille, it seems. Or perhaps a voyou a voyou.


At 8:13 AM, Blogger rondi said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:01 AM, Blogger rondi said...

I loved hearing Sarkozy say "voyous" because it has long been one of my favorite French words. And its English counterpart makes people so mad.


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