Sunday 23 June 2013

La ronde des jurons- a study of the ancient and lost art of swearing

It should not surprise us that Brassens devoted a song to the swearwords of France.   Swearing has been described as “poor men’s poetry” and Brassens, of course, is the champion of the underprivileged in the face of the oppression of the institutionalized forces of State and Church,  whose social and religious taboos have been targeted by swearwords through the centuries.

I have not imposed upon myself the impossible task of finding a precise English equivalent for each French oath.  I feel that there are valid arguments which justify regarding an oath as a unique, national, cultural entity

I have, however, made an attempt to sort out these French swearwords in the translation notes that follow the script of the poem.

The letters in brackets in the French text refer to my vocabulary notes to be found further down in this post
- La ronde des jurons
1 Voici la ronde(a) des jurons
2 Qui chantaient clair , qui dansaient rond ,
3 Quand les Gaulois
4 De bon aloi(b)
5 Du franc-parler suivaient la loi ,
6 jurant par-là , jurant par-ci(d) ,
7 jurant à langue raccourci'(e) ,
8 Comme des grains de chapelet
9 Les joyeux jurons défilaient(f) :
10 Tous les morbleus , tous les ventrebleus ,
11 Les sacrebleus et les cornegidouilles ,
12 Ainsi , parbleu , que les jarnibleus
13 Et les palsambleus ,
14 Tous les cristis , les ventres saint-gris ,
15 Les par ma barbe et les noms d'une pipe ,
16 Ainsi , pardi , que les sapristis
17 Et les sacristis ,
18 Sans oublier les jarnicotons ,
19 Les scrogneugneus et les bigre' et les bougre'
20 Les saperlott's , les cré nom de nom ,
21 Les peste , et pouah , diantre , fichtre et foutre,
22 Tous les Bon Dieu ,
23 Tous les vertudieux ,
24 Tonnerr' de Brest et saperlipopette ,
25 Ainsi , pardieu , que les jarnidieux
26 Et les pasquedieux.

27 Quelle pitié ! Les charretiers(g)
28 Ont un langage châtié(h) !
29 Les harengères(i)
30 Et les mégères (j)
31 Ne parlent plus à la légère !
32 Le vieux catéchisme poissard(k)
33 N'a guèr' plus cours chez les hussards ...
34 Ils ont vécu(L) , de profundis(m) ,
35 Les joyeux jurons de jadis
The dance of the swearwords
Here’s the dance of the swearwords
Which sang out clear, danced as a'rondo
When Gauls of old
Worthy folk all
Followed the law of plain-speaking,
Swearing here there and everywhere
Swearing with hard-hitting words.
Like beads of a rosary
The merry oaths came pouring out:
All the morbleus, all the ventrebleus,
The Sacrebleus and the cornegidouilles,
Just as, parbleu, with the jarnibleus
And the palsambleus,
All the cristis, the ventres saint-gris,
The par ma barbe and the noms d’une pipe,
Just as, pardi, with sapristis
And the sacristis,
Not forgetting les jarnicotons,
The scrogneugneus and the bigre' and the bougre',
The saperlott's, the cré the nom de nom,
The plague, and pouh, diantre, fichtre and foutre,
All the Bon Dieu,
All the vertudieux,
Tonnerr' de Brest and saperlipopette,
just as, pardieu, with the jarnidieux
And the pasquedieux.
What a shame! The truck drivers
Have now cleaned up their language!
And the fishwives
And harshest shrews
Now don’t speak without thinking!
The old obscene  catechism
Is scarce used now by the hussars
They’ve had their day, so rest in peace,
The merry oaths of times gone by.

Full meaning
Type of oath
Mort de Dieu
Swearing on the body of Christ - but minced words
Ventre de dieu
Swearing on the belly of Christ cut open on the cross- but minced word.
An oath invented for the surrealist play « Ubu Roi » of 1896
Sacré Dieu
Swearing on the sacred God - but minced word.
Par Dieu
Swearing on God - but minced word.
Je renie Dieu
Denying God-total blasphemy !  -but minced words
Par le sang de Dieu
Swearing on the blood Christ shed on the cross - but minced words
Swearing on Christ’s name
ventre saint-gris
Ventre de dieu
Swearing on the belly of Christ – but a substitute noun
ma barbe
Mon Dieu
Swearing on God but substitute noun
nom d'une pipe
Nom de dieu
Swearing on God’s name, but substitute noun
Par Dieu
Swearing on God - but minced word.
Sacré Christ
Swearing on the sacred Christ - but minced word.
Sacré Christ
Swearing on the sacred Christ - but minced word.
Je renie Dieu
Denying God-total blasphemy !  But substitute noun
Nom de Dieu
Swearing on God’s name but minced words
Obscenity - but minced word.
Sacred God
Swearing on God but substitute noun
Cré nom de nom
Sacred Name of God
Minced words and substitute noun
The Plague
Swearing on the horrific plagues of medieval Europe
Expression of disgust as in English
Swearing on the Devil - but minced word.
F*ck (but less strong in French)
F*ck (but less strong in French
Bon Dieu
The Good Lord
Swearing on God’s goodness
Innocent God
Swearing on God’s innocence
Sacred God
Swearing on God but substitute noun
Tonnerre de Brest
Tonnerre de Dieu
Swearing on God’s thunder- but substitute noun
Swearing on God
Je nie Dieu
Denying God- total blasphemy - but minced word.
Par le sang de Dieu
Swearing on the blood Christ shed on the cross - but minced words


a)La ronde = a dance performed in a circle, a square dance, a folk dance .  I thought of using the word “rondo” but that is “rondeau” in French.
b)De bon aloi = honest,  respectable,  sound
c)Le franc-parler = outspokenness, speaking your mind.
d)Par-là …. par-ci = here and there, all over the place
e)Frapper à bras raccourcis= to lay into to some-one with your fists.  The French argue among themselves the significance of shortened arms.  Perhaps the most plausible explanation  is that it means: with shortened sleeves, rolled up for the fight.
f)Défiler - pass by – flash by
G)Les charretiers   carters
h)Châtié = polished, refined
i)Les harengères  = the fishwives- a pejorative description as in English
j)Mégère =  a cantankerous, evil tempered woman, a shrew.
 k)Poissard  = vulgar,  coarse
L)Ils ont vécu = If you say something « a vécu », you mean that it has had its day – is a thing of the past
m)De profundis is a phrase for a requiem.


As I look at the Google chart of readership of this blog, I see that Georges Brassens has followers in most countries of the world.  It is an odd thought that as they read this song they will all relate to swearwords in their own languages with their own distinctive forms.  It is one of the mysteries of the human psychology that swearing is an international phenomenon, as people feel the need to punctuate their communication with apparently redundant words of anger and revolt.
The balance of the swearwords quoted by Brassens shows that the majority of the traditional oaths in France derive from the religion of the population. They refer to the Christian God, to Jesus Christ, to the Saints and to the beliefs and rituals of the Catholic Church.  By calling on our Gods, we are conforming to normal religious practice, Christians do this in prayer.  However, to do this while swearing shows total disrespect.  All well brought-up children in Christian countries know that swearing is wrong and are frequently admonished to wash their mouths out after transgressing.  This mild, domestic reprimand is overshadowed, however, by a much more ancient and awesome authority. The bible tells us that when Moses received the commandments from God, the third in importance was the injunction that the name of God should not be taken in vain. 
It would seem that by calling on religious forces wantonly in oaths, we are tinkering with the mighty electricity of the universe by which God controls his creation.  The Book of Deuteronomy describes in horrific detail how the God of the Old Testament channels his corrective discipline in the form of curses- Chapter 28 verse 15 onwards:
But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee:
Cursed [shall be] the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep……
Deu 28:28 The LORD shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart"

The Church of the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire saw themselves as delegated to tap into these powers of the almighty and harnessed them in ecclesiastical curses against the enemies of their faith. A famous example is the Ernulphus curse, used by the Roman Church in excommunications. tTis curse is quoted at some length in Lawrence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”.

The common people were prohibited, however, from calling on these powers and numerous women, who thought they had the gift to do so, were burnt alive as witches.  Under the same ruling, the casual references to the deity in popular swearwords were also condemned by the rulers of the Church.  They were convinced that the people’s  habit of cursing, taking in vain not only God’s name but also the beliefs and rituals of the Church impinged on the Church’s role and diminished its prestige.  Swearing was therefore strongly and sometimes cruelly suppressed under the blasphemy laws.
Under the system of the joint share of absolute power by Church and state in Europe it fell to the sovereign to mete out punishment for this offence against the Church and the sovereigns undertook this responsibility from the 13th century until the 18th century. Wikipedia tells that the last person hanged for blasphemy in Great Britain was Thomas Aikenhead aged 20, in Scotland in 1697. He was prosecuted for words which denied the veracity of the Old Testament and the legitimacy of Christ's miracles.
Below is a painting by Gerard Hoet, dated 1728: “The Blasphemer Stoned”

In spite of the countermeasures, swearing could not be wiped out.   An escape which people used in order to continue to break the religious taboos was to disguise the religious content by mincing words or phrases or substituting different nouns for the divine.  In French these oaths are called « blasphèmes dérivés » or « blasphèmes euphémistiques”.  Brassens’ song gives us a long list.
Ironically, it was sometimes the sovereigns themselves, who in their compulsion to use a good curse, turned to this neutralized language. It is said that the French king Henri IV (1553-1610), who had the habit of using the strong derived oath “jarnidieu” –“ I deny God” was advised by his confessor, Father  Coton, to substitute his own name. As a result the sterilised oath “jarnicoton” came into use –line 18 in Brassens’ song. 
In this song Brassens is regretting the loss in our times of the wealth of colourful oaths used for centuries past.  The famous English writer, Robert Graves (1895- 1985) in his little book “Lars Porsena or the future of swearing (1929)” expresses the same sentiment.   Graves suggests that swearing as an art in England reached its high water mark in the late eighteenth century at a period when the reformed church in England was somewhat somnolent and relaxed.   He talks of the swearing duels that took place and, probably tongue in cheek, he analyses the essence of the poetry of swearing (page 47): “…. the alliterative emphasis and rhythm of swearing, … the maximum nervous reaction that can be got from a normal subject by combinations and permutations of the oath.”  He speaks admiringly (page 27) of those who swore “luxuriantly, from anti-institutional conviction.” When I discussed this extract with my well-read Russian daughter-in-law, she told me that there is still a strong tradition of swearing in Russia, where it is sourced by a rich vocabulary, which its most skilled practitioners can turn into an impressive rhetorical art.
The gradual onset of democracy in Europe saw the weakening of traditional prohibitions imposed by princes and priests.  Without the consciousness of breaking the awesome taboos of an all-powerful Church, the old oaths became nothing more than standard expressions of irritation. 
 Those who felt the need to shock and express social revolt from then on found greater power  in swearwords that broke the sexual taboos.  Robert Graves and apparently Georges Brassens saw this as the moment when swearing went into decline having lost the grandeur of its revolt. Offending a few strait-laced persons did not compare with sniping at the ruthless dictatorial heads of Church and state.
Brassens mentions only four obscene words (and mild ones at that) “bougre” and “bigre” on line on line 19,  “fichtre” and “foutre” on line 21. 
I became aware of the word “foutre” immediately after I arrived in Arras to take up a post of English assistant.  I incorporated the verb with all its variants into my active vocabulary.  It was only several months later after a meeting with the female teachers of the girls’ lycée, that I was informed that the word I was using profusely was similar to the English word “f*ck”, which I would not think of using in its oath form in English.
Brassens is of the opinion that the contemporary habit of swearing using a limited number of obscene words has destroyed the previous inventive and vivid art.   He cites the paucity of the invective of the modern hussar compared with that of hussars in previous centuries.  Robert Graves has once again exactly the same opinion.  Graves had been an army officer during the First World War (His memoirs:  “Goodbye to all that” are widely recognized as a masterpiece).  He despaired of the unimaginative monotony in the swearing reported when soldiers appeared before him charged with insubordination.  We read on page 41 of Graves’s book:
"Orderly-room charges of obscene and blasphemous language show a distressing sameness:
“Sir, the accused called me a f*cking c*nt” or
“Sir, the accused called me a f*cking prick.”

Both Brassens and Graves believe that swearing has had its day.  Those of us who lived with it during our military service,  blasting loud and long in our ears, would not regret its passing.

D.Y.  21/06/2013

Please click here to return to the full alphabetical list of my Georges Brassens selection



Aleksandra Plewa said...

Your translation helped me! I'm studying french in Poland and I had no idea how I can translate it. But now I understand it all. Now, this song makes more sens for the polish girl :-) Thank you!
Excuse-me my english.

Ça m'ai aidé bp! Je fais mes études français en Pologne et je n'ai pas eu aucun d'idée comment traduire ça. Mais maintenant, je comprends tout. Maintenant cette chanson a le sens pour la fille polonaise :-) Merci!
Excusez-moi mon français.

Peder said...

I dont know you, sir. Just read this many years after. but it is extremely good!!
Remarquablement bien fait as the intellectuals said in the 70es.
Peder . Denmark.