Monday, June 9, 2014

F-Word of the Day: “fournée”

[Update 18 September 2014]  What the “F-word” is, depends on where you live.   Here, the latest from Switzerland:

Der dunkle Schatten des F-Worts
Mit dem Faschismusvorwurf verschärfen die SP und die BDP ihre politische Gangart markant.
«Die Politik der SVP der letzten Monate hat klar faschistoide Tendenzen», sagte Levrat. Damit ist Levrat nach BDP-Präsident Landolt der zweite Chef einer Bundesratspartei, der die SVP in die Faschismus-Ecke stellt.

[Below, the original essay]

[Trigger warning:  This philological note may contain some very, very bad words.  You must be over 21 to read this.  No, make that 31.   91.   In fact -- Don’t read it at all.   Place your head back in the sand, and all will be well.]

Awhile back, there was a kerfuffle over a certain traditional word meaning ‘stingy’, public utterance of which caused one hapless speechmaker to lose his job:

______________UH ... AREN'T WE?
Last week, locking up the illiterate and hard-of-hearing vote, Washington Mayor Anthony Williams accepted ombudsman David Howard's resignation for having used the word "niggardly" (correctly, to mean "miserly") in front of co-workers, who misinterpreted it as related to …

(here the manuscript breaks off).
Now, the word in question, which is attested in print as far back as 1571,  is both etymologically and semantically quite unrelated to the dreaded N-word.  The current purely phonetically-engendered taboo upon it (for taboo there is, make no mistake)is of a kind unusual for American English, but well-attested in some other languages such as Chinese or certain dialects of North Africa, where phonetic similarity to some ill-omened word  (e.g. the word for ‘death’, or the same of someone who is believed to have recently died by sorcery, etc.)  has doomed large numbers of vocables. (Some languages experience a very large turnover in vocabulary, generation after generation, for just this reason.)


All France is now atwitter over this:

In a video posted on the National Front’s website and later removed, Mr. Le Pen, 85, lashed out against several of his critics, including the former tennis champion Yannick Noah and the pop star Madonna. When questioned about the French singer Patrick Bruel, who is Jewish and has been critical of the National Front, Mr. Le Pen said: “We’ll include him in the next batch.” In the comment, Mr. Le Pen used the French word “fournée,” which refers to a batch of bread to be baked, and was interpreted by his critics to be a reference to crematories at Nazi death camps.
Ms. Le Pen said that her father had made a “political error” in making his latest remarks, even as she told Le Figaro, the French newspaper, that the “meaning given to his comments is a malicious interpretation.”
“It is they who have made a political mistake, not me,” Mr. Le Pen told the French broadcaster RMC. The comments threatened to widen an intergenerational rift in the National Front

It is rare indeed for the N.Y. Times  actually to quote a French politician’s actual words (or, here, word), in the original French -- even though, without the original language, the reader often cannot possibly assess the nuances of what is really going on.  (We have discussed such examples here:
            ultralaïcard; …)

So, we are given the word, fournée, which is correctly rendered as ‘batch of bread’ (even more correctly than the reporter perhaps knew, since the word batch is etymologically related to bake;  see below), since, if all that the American readers had been told was that M. Le Pen had referred to a “batch of bread” and left it at that, they would have been baffled.    Still, as it is, the article is linguistically incompetent, since unless you know French, you still won’t quite grasp what the deal is.   Knowing more about the word  makes M. Le Pen’s statement both more sinister … and less.  Allow us to elucidate.

What the Times does not tell you is that, outside of the baking community, the commoner meaning of fournée is as follows (quoting from the Bordas Dictionnaire de la langue française):

Ensemble de personnes qui partagent le même sort au même moment, ou bien qui arrivent ensemble.  Une nouvelle de touristes descendait de l’autocar pour visiter le château.  La fournée de nouveaux promus.

Given that, and given that neither Yannick Noah nor Madonna is Jewish, nor was Bruel’s ethnicity alluded to by the speaker, the reader will now be wondering what all the fuss is about -- the outcry seems even more bogus than the one that brought down the hapless ombudsman.   M. Le Pen seems to be saying, “It’ll be Bruel’s turn next time.”

To understand why the outcry, requires a tad of etymology. 
Now, there are lots of words that sound similar to fournéefournir (‘to furnish’, and part of the source of our own word furnish), fourni ‘well-supplied’ (or: ‘bushy’, said of a beard), fourniture (related to the English word furniture), and so forth.  But among them is four ‘oven’ -- and indeed this, unlike the others, is etymologically related to fournée (ultimately from Latin).  Whence the instant outcry.

Some American readers who don’t follow French politics  may still be nonplussed.  You need to know that Le Pen père has a reputation for anti-Semitism, and that he has plenty of detractors, waiting for him open-mouthed, like primed mousetraps, for him to put a foot wrong.  Gotcha!

Now, if Le Pen had been wittier in his riposte, he would have said:
“Ils se sont … f-f-f-fourvoyés dans leur analyse sémantique!”

[Update 11 juin 2014] How sharper than a serpent's tooth ...

Le président d'honneur du FN, qui multiplie les piques à l'encontre de sa fille
Jean-Marie Le Pen se vengera-t-il du parricide politique dont il se dit «victime» après ses propos invitant à «une fournée» d'artistes? Interrogé par Le Scan, le président d'honneur du Front national assure qu'il «prendra ses responsabilités et donnera ses instructions» lors du prochain congrès du parti.

For the larger picture, consult our essay on intellectual heirs -- acolytes

[Update 31 July 2014]   And now in Germany -- this time a case of non-verbal politico-semiotics:

The Jewish community was shocked by photographs taken at a Berlin demonstration last week where the clothes of children were brushed with red paint. To some, such images allude to the death of Palestinian children in the Israeli strikes on Gaza. But Jewish leaders here have condemned them as a revival of anti-Semitic myths that paint Jews as child killers who used their victims’ blood in religious rituals.

I have no idea whether attribution to Germans generally, of a memory of the blood-libel, is realistic or not.   This knowledge lives on, to be sure, among Jews and folklorists -- it was strictly in an academic context, while studying literature from the age of Chaucer, that I learned of the thing.   Certainly your average American, whose collective memory extends back no further than Season 1 of “Mad Men”, would not have a clue what you are talking about.   But there are, indeed, parts of the world, in which the Unfinished Business of History looms large in preconsciousness -- particularly, among Muslims of the Middle East.  (For an excellent discussion, cf. Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam.)

[Update 8 August 2014]  “All Things Considered” just broadcast a useful report from France by Eleanor Beardsly. She asked a French rabbi whether he held the Front National responsible for the upsurge of (sometimes violent) antisemitism in France.  “He just laughed”:  The perps in the recent attacks, he explained, are overwhelmingly immigrant “Muslim, African, and North African” -- less FN than FLN, as it were.  As for the FN, it is more worried about precisely that population, than about long-assimilated Jews.

Politics-and-language note:
That piece, though it did not go deep, was somewhat startling in actually naming ethnicities, rather than just referring to “des jeunes”, which is the French media codeword when Maghrebis get out of line.   (Off course, this may have less to do with any courage on the part of NPR, than the fact that the roster of taboo topics  differs from country to country.) Additionally, Ms Beardsly added another bit of profiling, when she reported that, at the end of a recent demonstration, “the male protesters” broke loose can commited acts of vandalism.  Not:  “the protesters, who were mostly men” or what have you.   In fact, the detail added is in some ways so odd, that I wonder whether it was not so much a swipe at the masculine gender, as a crytpo-French reference to, precisely, “les jeunes” (al-shabaab).

1 comment:

  1. This is great; why no comments yet? And why is Google Translate so terrible?