A historian, a philosopher, and some prison guards

Alexis de Tocqueville‘s book Democracy in America was written in the 1830s, when our country was young and democratic government was only about 50 years old both in the United States and in France.  It is one of the classic books on American society.  Wikipedia says that it is still required reading for political science and social science majors in American universities, and you probably at least heard of it in college.

Although de Tocqueville wrote about pretty much every aspect of American society, his actual mission was to study our prison system.  So, when the French philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy came to the US to repeat de Tocqueville’s journey, he started at Riker’s Island, the infamous New York prison.  I’m reading the book that he wrote about his visit to the US, and of course Zipf’s Law is a prominent part of the experience.  Here are some of the words that I had to look up before BHL even got past the reception area:

Barbelés électrifiés.  Hauts murs.  Un check-point, comme à l’orée d’une zone de guerre, où se croisent les matons, presque tous noirs, qui viennent prendre leur service et, en sens inverse, entassés dans des bus grillagés qui ressemblent à des autocars scolaires, les prisionniers…

Electrified barbed wire.  High walls.  A check-point, like at the edge of a war zone, where the screws, almost all black, who come to [not sure what prendre leur service means], run into each other, and, in the opposite direction, crammed into fenced-in busses that resemble school buses, the prisoners…

–Bernard-Henri Lévy, American Vertigo


  • l’orée (n.f.): concrete meanings: edge, fringe, periphery, outskirts.  Abstract meanings: brink, cusp, threshold, verge.
  • à l’orée de: at the edge of, on the outskirts of.
  • le barbelé: barbed wire.  Pronunciation from Collins: [baʀbəle].
  • le fil barbelé: barbed wire.
  • barbelé(e): barbed.
  • le/la maton(nne): “screw” (slang word for a prison guard).
  • en sens inverse: in the opposite direction.  (Linguee.fr)
  • entasser dans: to cram into.
  • grillager: to put wire fencing around.

Un dortoir plus soigné, aux draps nets, où un écriteau indique, comme dans les bars de Manhattan, que la zone est << smoke free >>.

A neater dormitory, with clean sheets, where a sign indicates, like in the bars of Manhattan, that the zone is “smoke-free.”

–Bernard-Henri Lévy, American Vertigo

  • le dortoir: dormitory.
  • les draps (n.m.pl.): sheets, bed linens.
  • net: clean.  (Lots of other meanings, too.)
  • l’écriteau (n.m.): banner, sign.

We haven’t even gotten to the interesting words yet–handcuffs, razor blade, newbie, punch.  I think you can see where this is going.  In the meantime: if you haven’t clicked on the link to Riker’s Island in this post, you really should.

Note: definitions from WordReference.com.

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