Amuse-Bouche: Words à la Mode — or how to be out of date fast

Cool expressions revolve faster than une porte à tambour (revolving door).

Does everybody read the newspaper with a yellow marker, or just me? At Sunday lunch, I regularly ask Nicole’s family to solve my word mysteries. But this week, before I even get out my (14-page) list, Nicole me pose une nouvelle colle (slang usage of colle, glue: asks me a new “sticky question”). “Veux-tu le sot-l’y-laisse?” I stare stupidly at the roast chicken, translating mentally: “Do you want the idiot leaves it there?” Quoi? The sot-l’y-laisse, she explains with a laugh, describes delicious but hard-to-find parts of the bird, tiny muscles on each side of the backbone. They’re called le sot-l’y-laisse because only an imbécile would leave them uneaten. In Nicole’s family, they fight over these morsels, found just above the croupion, and sometimes erroneously confused with it. The croupionau contraire, is the fatty tissue holding a bird’s tail feathers. The verb, croupionner, can describe a woman who wiggles hers as she walks, presumably to attract attention. Ornithologists call the croupion the pygostyle, but hoi polloi call it the “Pope’s nose” or the “parson’s nose” depending, I suppose, on whether you prefer to insult Catholics or Protestants. So try asking for the pygostyle next Thanksgiving.

But I digress. After a character in the movie Amélie (“Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” 2001) referred to the sot-l’y-laisse, spectators began wondering what it meant. The 18th century aristocratic culinary expression was reborn. Recipes, usually for the near-by muscles we call “chicken oysters”, appeared in a number of cooking publications, and in 2007, Le Figaro newspaper published a whole article on exactly what part of a roast bird sot-l’y-laisse refers to. Now there are at least eight restaurants called “Sot-l’y-laisse” !
This article is the first of an occasional series on what I call “mots-mode”, my own term for words à la mode—not like apple pie with ice cream (a non-French usage of à la mode), but like clothing styles, which are à la mode if they’re the latest thing. Normally not part of the ever innovative genius of argot (French slang), “mots-mode” are trite yet often paradoxically obscure words and expressions that spread like a virus for a few weeks or months, then fade. As I write, I’ll identify the culprits with the abbreviation mm (mot-mode), or worse, p (passé: out of style).

Just like clothing, mots-mode reflect one’s pretensions: political, economic, social or intellectual. Each clan— from gauchos (mm leftists) to taggeurs (mm graffiti artists) to bobos (p bohemian bourgeois)has its own markers of who’s in and who’s out. Since frequently the general public has no clue (p) what the expressions mean, people use them to show they’re branchouillés. Of course, I’m using branchouillé  humorously here, as a pejorative variant of the word branché (plugged in, i.e., hip) to imply that the speaker is p, i.e., not really branché. And by now the word branché is definitely p.

Even the French make fun of their tics de langage. In January 2009, Le Figaro asked its readers to choose the most overused word of 2008. Nominations included subprime, buzz, Facebook, bling-bling, pirates, récession, développement durable (sustainable development), récolement (inventory—often in the context of bankruptcy), Livret A (a savings account) and Grenelle. Of the 10 mm, let me point out in passing, six were English or bilingual. And nine had to do with either fame or money. Or both.

The last word, Grenelle, is a perfect mm because even if you’re French, it’s totally esoteric. It refers to the Accords de Grenelle, agreements resulting from government-vs.-labor negotiations during the 1968 turbulence, held at the Ministère du Travail on Rue de Grenelle in Paris. J’hallucine! (mm Give me a break!). Nobody can understand that! In 1968, half the population of France wasn’t even born yet. Later, in 2007, important meetings on long-term environmental policy became known (abusivement, since they weren’t held on Rue de Grenelle) as le Grenelle de l’Environnement. Now, by analogy, a Grenelle refers to any important French policy debate among multiple interest groups.

What is horripilant (mm irritating) is not so much the actual words (except perhaps bling-bling), as le caractère tyrannique with which they’re used everywhere, then never. They revolve faster than une porte à tambour (revolving door). You constantly used to hear Santiags— a fashionista (p) mot-mode for heavily decorated, expensive cowboy boots— meaning shoes — in the expression traîner (to drag) ses Santiags (i.e., to hang out). So “il traîne ses Santiags au Buddha Bar” used to mean he frequented that bar scene. However, suddenly tongs (thongs or flip-flops — the ones we used to call “go-aheads” because they fell off if you tried to walk backward) hit Paris like a plague of plastic locusts. Now il traîne ses tongs au Mood. Where it’s highly unlikely he’ll get served le sot-l’y-laisse.