Amuse-Bouche: Kid Stuff — “Comment vas-tu, yau de poêle ?”

“C’est quoi, un yau ?”

“C’est quoi un yau ?” asks Auguste, reading his mél (slang for email, officially known as courriel, from Canadian French, a contraction of courrier éléctronique). Auguste quotes the perplexing sentence: “Comment vas-tu, yau de poêle?” It’s not in the dictionary. And poêle can mean anything from a coffin drapery to a wood stove to a skillet!

Thwarted, we ask Pascale, who lives next door. She laughs. “It doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s complete nonsense — a non-sequiturfrom two unrelated expressions: ‘comment vas tu?’ and ‘tuyau de poêle (stovepipe)’. Kids use it as a greeting. Pascale, who often works in Canada, warns us to be careful of the word gosse (kid) which in Québec is widely used to mean testicules. Les bijoux de famille (the family jewels), quoi ?

But back to yau de poêle. You have to answer ‘Pas mal, et toi, le à matelas?’ (‘Not bad, and you?’ Followed by more nonsense to createtoile à matelas: mattress ticking) Non-sens total. Only the sound counts. There are lots of variantes : Bonjour à vous, te-plantaire (voûte plantaire – arch of the foot) ! Mes amitiés à votre épouse, de bambou (My greetings to your wife/pousse de bambou – bamboo sprout); Ca va ce matin, tin-au-tibet ? (How are things this morning/ plus a reference to children’s comic book Tin-Tin in Tibet).

Like camp songs and “knock-knock jokes”, I guess this stuff can only be appreciated if you learned it in childhood. But childish language as a form of humor is deeply ingrained in French culture. Usually quantity is better than quality, intelligence not required. The only thing funnier than a meaningless non-sequitur is a long list of meaningless non-sequiturs. Cult figure Boby Lapointe (1922-1972), is loved for exactly this sort of whimsical word play. The closest French équivalent to the US songwriter and Harvard prof Tom Lehrer, Boby Lapointe was a brilliant mathematician/poet best known as the cabaret singer in François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960). He once wrote a whole poem based on Comment vas tu/yau de poêle ?

(…) Ca va merci/bémol (Ok, thanks/B flat — si bémol in French, but also a reference to the slang use of bémol to mean a disadvantage, i.e. ‘not too good’ )
Mais j’ai un rhume/négrita (But I have a cold/Négrita Rum)
Pour soigner ça/nitaire (To treat that/sanitary or plumbing installation)
Ce qu’il te faut/tographie (what you need/photograph)

…etc. etc for another thirty-six lines! But sometimes nonsense is not meant to be funny. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), another cult figure, was attacked in a 1979 book called L’effet ‘Yau de poêle de Lacan et des Lacaniens. In it, François George accuses Lacanian psychoanalysis of mystification (humbug), for inventing abstruse vocabulary which has about as much content as the emperor’s new clothes.

Humor based on slightly different infantile verbal silliness appears in a Le Monde article on political “bla-bla”, where journalist Robert Solé produces a whole list of onomatopées hypocoristiques (onomatopoeic doubled-syllable baby-talk). He teases François Hollande (head of the French Socialist Party and former roommate of 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal) for saying current French president Nicolas Sarkozy has gone from being the “président bling-bling” (flashy– from American hip-hop slang meaning showy jewelry) to being the “président couac-couac”, doubling couac (false note, slang for glitch) to sound like the French version of “quack-quack”, (which any kid knows is actually said “coin-coin”). Solé suggests that if Hollande wants to run for president himself in 2012 after the current quinquennat (5-year presidential term, shortened in 2001 from the previous 7-year term, or septennat), when opportunity knocks (“toc-toc”), he will have to get in gear (“vroum-vroum”), move fast (“tagada-tagada” ) and above all not baby-talk French voters (“a-reu-a-reu” ).

The first sound French babies make is supposed to be a-reu a-reu. We Americans know our newborns say “ma-ma” and/or “da-da.”Dada in French is no word for beginners. It means horse or obsession (hobby horse), not to mention the name of a pre-Surrealist revolutionary literary and art movement. But apparently even les bébés know how to pronounce the French “R” perfectly at birth.