How to say lop-sided in French: de guingois


What does a mom do when her kids use the M-word (see today's story)? Does she look to an old French billboard for the answer? (This one, an ad for "La Roue" savon--see the old red wheel in the background?--seems to suggest a good old-fashioned washing-out-of-the-mouth with soap! 

SAPERLIPOPETTE (saah-pair-lee-poh-pet) exclamation
    : gadzooks! goodness me!

Update: my friend Alicia just wrote in, adding this: The correct translation of saperlipopette if you believe Tintin translations anyway... is "blistering barnacles"... Thanks to Captain Haddock!

J'ai retrouvé le plaisir de la BD grâce à ce personnage libre de dire merde et non pas saperlipopette. I rediscovered the enjoyment of the comic book, thanks to the character who was free to say "sh--" and not "gadzooks". --from Le Monde, from the article ZEP, PÈRE COMBLÉ DE TITEUF

AUDIO FILE: listen to my son, Max, pronounce the French word "saperlipopette" and hear the example sentence:  Download Saperlipopette . Download Saperlipopette

In books: Merde!: The Real French You Were Never Taught at School

... and the memoir Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas

A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

On the way to the dishwasher, my son drops a dirty spoon.
"Merde!" says he.

I zip my lip, for a moment, and think about how the French use the M-word freely, starting from a tender age. I'll never forget hearing it shouted at the beach, in Marseilles... by one stuttering sand-castle engineer, a little tyke of four years old. "Merde!" he exclaimed, when the water rushed up, demolishing his digs.

"Merde? He said 'merde'!" I remember my astonishment at how the French parents continued to chat, comme si de rien n'était.* Once again, I began to question and compare cultures, thinking back to my experiences in the States. In my mind's ear, I could not hear the same four-letter complaint on a beach, whose shores were closer to my native land. Surely, back home, a four-year-old wouldn't shout the S-word? No, I decided at the time, American toddlers don't cuss like that.

And then I had kids of my own. I think I've been on them about their cussing ever since they turned two (the age of mimic--and they weren't mimicking me!).

"Max!" I complain to my now thirteen-year-old. "Fais attention à ce que tu dis! Careful what you say!"
"Qu'est-ce que tu veux que je dise? Well, what do you want me to say?"
What's wrong with the perfectly retro "rats!"? I wonder. Now there's a keen expletive!

"Zut!" his father offers, picking up the dirty spoon and putting it in the machine, along with the breakfast bowls.

"Que ton langage soit... soit..." I search for a French word to illustrate my point and, taking a clue from my son, who is already halfway up the stairs, on his way to his room, I find it. "See to it that your language is ELEVE!"* Yes, elevated--raised to a HIGHER level!

Max, putting on an aristocratic air, and leaning dramatically over the guard rail offers this:


I smile, satisfied, but my satisfaction is short-lived when, with a snicker, my son comes up with another possibility.

"Oh, Max! That's LOW!"
"Crotte!" he snickers.
"Low. So LOW!"
"Go on, scat, get out of here!"

Remembering that little tyke on the beach in Marseilles, and his side-swiped tower, I think about "language building" and all those vain attempts to bring our kids' speech to "a higher level," against the waves of influence. (Not an easy undertaking when I don't understand French as they do--and now that there is a third language to contend with: French "texto" or text messaging.) With all the lofty, linguistic intentions, I wonder if I am, in a way, building my own chateau de sable*--only on a seemingly "higher" level; you know, a sand castle in the ciel.*

French Vocabulary
Comme si de rien n'était
= as if nothing happened
élevé = high, elevated
une crotte = dropping (dog mess), i.e. "sh--"
le château (m) de sable = sand castle; le ciel = sky

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety