December 17, 2012

“Vachement” and other untranslatables


We are a French adjective? Explain this again?

Over at WWWord, they’ve been running an excellent series on untranslatable words, where speakers of various languages pick out and attempt to define words from their languages that particularly defy literal and less literal translation into English.

Past entries have included Misha Glenny on the Serbian word inat, which compresses centuries of stubborness into four simple letters (loosely defined as “defiance for the sake of defiance rather than to achieve a long-term goal,” debates rage on among Serbs and in the region about whether inat is part of Serbian national character) and Carmina Santos on the Tagalog word “gigil” which has to do with cuteness and children and the feeling of something being so unbearably cute that that you have to struggle to restrain yourself from grabbing it and squeezing the life out of it. If you would like to toss some of these words off around the Christmas table as “something you’ve just picked up in New York,” WWWord helpfully posts sound recordings of them as well.

The newest post in the series is from Lisa Anselmo on the French word “vachement”, which does not, despite the root word, mean to do something in a cow-like manner. It means “very.” Or rather — and grammar people will know if there’s a term for this, maybe something like an “intensive”? — it amplifies in a general but extreme way the noun it modifies.

Anselmo does some research into “vachement” and this is her explanation for how “cow” could mean very anything (and if anyone hasn’t read James Thurber’s analysis of Gertrude Stein’s “pigeons on the grass alas” line, I’m putting it down at the bottom of this post for your everlasting pleasure*):

 Around 1880, the word vache—cow—became slang for “evil” or “severe.” It seems that French cows are crankier than their U.S. cousins, perhaps from being overmilked for all that cheese. By the turn of the century, vache had developed into a derogatory term for a wicked or vengeful person: “You cow, you”—similar in vehemence but not quite the same as the British expression (which is reserved for women). Then, in about 1930, the cows got a reprieve, and vachement evolved into the kinder, quantitative meaning: “a lot; so very.” Vaches Actus didn’t say how this evolution came to be, but I’m guessing it was during the Roaring Twenties, perhaps at the legendary brasserie La Coupole on Boulevard Montparnasse (it’s still there!), when, after much champagne, someone—Sartre or Man Ray or Simone de Beauvoir?—uttered something like, “Gawd, that is wickedly mahvelous!” Et voilà, “wicked” came to mean “very.” This is not an official explanation, you understand, but it’s vachement plus exacte than the one my French friend offered.

Voilà: vachement. Now you know.

What particuarly comes through from the “Untranslatable” posts is the special, complicated grappling native speakers of a language find themselves doing when they try to explain what a word means: how words are related to other words (“it’s like ‘bad’, but more emphatic and with a loving tone as well, sometimes”), how their sounds echo back on their meanings, deliberately or not, how different people say them, whether you yourself would ever say them and why or why not, how new they feel or how sunk into the substrata of common usage, where there are metaphoric leaps between nouns and ideas that make sense to one group of people but may not seem logical to others — a whole stew of approximation, explanation, tenuous causalities, gestures, facial expressions … which makes it clear that even native speakers have a relationship to their language which is a pretty wonderful hodgepodge of conscious knowledge and total malarkey.


* “It is neither just nor accurate to connect the word alas with pigeons. Pigeons are definitely not alas. They have nothing to do with alas and they have nothing to do with hooray (not even when you tie red, white, and blue ribbons on them and let them loose at band concerts); they have nothing to do with mercy me or isn’t that fine, either. White rabbits, yes, and Scotch terriers, and blue-jays, and even hippopotamuses, but not pigeons. I happen to have studied pigeons very closely and carefully, and I have studied the effect, or rather the lack of effect, of pigeons very carefully. A number of pigeons alight from time to time on the sill of my hotel window when I am eating breakfast and staring out the window. They never alas me, they never make me feel alas; they never make me feel anything.” — “There’s an Owl in My Room,” James Thurber



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.