This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Friday, February 5, 2010

GEAUX SAINTS: a spellcheck

GEAUX SAINTS! This exuberant cheer is scrawled on car windows, emblazoned on T-shirts, and immortalized on bumper stickers all over this part of the country. I enthusiastically endorse the sentiment. But I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to the French language, having spent more than 20 years living in France and trying to speak it properly (even though any Senegalese cab driver in Paris will know immediately that I'm an "étranger" as soon as I blurt out the address I want to go to). Anyway, with the passionate conviction of the convert, I am particularly sensitive to those who massacre French--even though they don't care what I think and continue blithely to mispronounce and misspell mainly to irk people like me.
A few examples:

--GEAUX SAINTS! Any French person will pronounce this phonetically as "Zho-Saints." The "e" turns the "g" soft in French. So if you want a hard g, as in "GO," you have to get rid of the e: "GAUX SAINTS!" (But I don't think anyone is going to put a Sharpie to their bumper sticker and strike out the e just because I say so.)

--Fleur de Lis. People here pronounce that "flure duh lee,"' on the assumption that the French never bother to pronounce final consonants. That's generally true. However, out of sheer cussedness, the French make an exception for the occasional final consonant, and "lis" is one of them. French pronunciation: "Fleur de Lisss." I persist in pronouncing it that way, even though I get pitying looks from the locals who assume I haven't lived in this former French colony long enough to learn proper French pronunciation.

--"Laissez le bon temps roulez," and variants, like "roulé". First off, this literal translation of an idiomatic English expression is laughably meaningless to a French speaker. Second, if you must use it (and in these parts, we must), at least spell it right. It should be "rouler" (infinitive) and not "roulez" (second person plural). But these subtleties are of no consequence to New Orleanians (or their Cajun cousins to the southwest) and I don't expect to see a sign painter correcting the moniker of the "Bon Temps Roulé" cafe a block from my house any time soon.

--Then there are those who think that by adding a nifty-looking accent to their names, they will give themselves a certain continental je ne sais quoi and perhaps even get invited to the Bastille Day (quatorze juillet) reception at the French consulate. Example: the grocery chain "Robért." Robert happens to be a common French name, used both as a surname and a family name. It is never written with an accent. The gratuitous addition of an accent over the e immediately signals to a French speaker that this "Robért" person is an illiterate or an imposter or both. Then there was the case of the late Congressman F. Edward Hébert, who insisted, because it looked cooler to him, that the accent in "Hébert" was grave (è) instead of acute (é). That was orthographically and phonetically incorrect. But whenever anyone pointed that out to him, he said it was his name and he could write it any way he damn pleased.

Maybe that's the bottom line (la ligne la plus basse): this is our city, our cultural heritage, and we can write and pronounce it the way we want no matter what the Académie Française thinks about it. (Frankly, they don't think about it much.) Fair enough. After all, the French have been massacring English words ever since 1066. In France today, "sweat shirt" comes out "sweet shirt" and "Levis" become ""Loo-wees." And so on...The battle is hopeless on both fronts, so probably the wisest course is to go with the flow (aller dans le sense du courant).

So...GEAUX SAINTS! And after we smash the Colts (écraser les Poulains), we'll all let "le bon temps" do its thing! WHO DAT, Y'ALL! (untranslatable)


  1. Excellent post.
    Thank you for saying what I've been reluctant to say for many, many years.
    Here are a couple of others:
    "Coup de grace" suffers the same fate as "fleur de lis." I grind my teeth every time I hear "coo-du-GRAH," and it happens a lot. It evokes the image of someone slapping someone else with a piece of fat.
    Some years ago the city fathers in Laplace, La., officially changed the name to "LaPlace," as though capitalizing the "l" gave the name some special cachet.
    A footnote: I have great memories of your dad. Some 50 years ago I was about 21, and occupied a lowly position in The Times-Picayune newsroom. When Tommy stopped in to drop off a news release about Touro, he'd sometimes stop my desk. One day he invited me to join him and A.J. Liebling a day or so later for a helicopter trip over the offshore rigs in the gulf, when Liebling was researching "The Earl of Louisiana." Sad to say, I couldn't get the day off.

  2. Oops. Meant to say "as though captitalizing the 'p [in Laplace] gave the name some special cachet."

  3. Dear Rum Runner,
    Yes, "coup de grace" is another good one. A dollop of fat in your face--take that, you (greasy) brigand!
    I'd love to hear more or your stories about my dad. He's still kicking at 95, by the way--still reading, writing and cooking gumbo. I hope I inherited his genes.

  4. Dear Tom,
    So glad to learn your father is still enjoying a good life. True gentleman that he is, he richly deserves it.
    Just wish I'd gotten to know him better. Must have been 1959 or '60, at the age of 21, when I first knew him. His mere acknowledgement of my existence was a compliment.I was out of the city from mid-1961 to mid-1964 and lost track of him. He wouldn't remember me, I'm sure. Here's hoping you did inherit his genes.