One evening in Paris I was riding the métro home, minding my own business, when a very, very drunk man got on. He was carrying an open bottle of some sort of hard liquor, and occasionally took a swig. He was so plastered that he could barely stay on his seat as the train swerved. He ranted incoherently–really incoherently. (After he left, I asked the guy next to me: Pardon me sir, was he speaking French? He gave me that look that people in Paris (and New York) give you when approached by a stranger before deciding that you’re OK, and then said: Of a sort.)
A young woman got on the train and took a seat. She had her phone to her ear, and was talking. The drunk, ranting guy leaned over, put his fingers to his lip, and said: Shhhhhh.
What the hell, you’re wondering? In a Parisian context, this actually wasn’t surprising at all. The general French approach to politeness (as I understand it) is: don’t do anything that would inconvenience the other person. This gets actualized in many ways—one that’s a surprise for us Americans is that you don’t bring a bottle of wine to dinner at someone’s house, because it would be a pain in the ass for the hostess to open it.
A very noticeable way that this works out is that in general, the French tend to communicate more quietly than Americans do. If you hear people talking and laughing as they walk down the street, they’re probably not French. And if you see someone talking on the phone on the train, the chances are excellent that they’re not French. It’s just not done.
So, in a French context, it wasn’t that bizarre for a shitfaced lunatic to interrupt his raving to say shhhhh to someone talking on the phone on the métro—he might have been hammered, but she was being rude. In America, someone would have said some equivalent of “it’s a free country, she can talk on the phone if she wants to.” People did hush him up when he got too carried away, but no one criticized him for saying shhhhh to the girl on the phone–that’s just logical.
All of this came to mind this morning because I happened to be thinking about how much I don’t care for hanging around loud people–and then thought about how much louder I am than anyone I know in France. When I get animated in a conversation in a cafe or something, I’m constantly having to remind myself to quiet down. I can’t imagine how miserably rude the people who are too loud for me must come across in France.
Having given you three adjectives that all mean drunk in (American) English slang, here are some French words related to inebriation. If you have some to add to the comments, it would be much appreciated!
- ivre: drunk. (Not slang.)
- soûl or saoule: drunk. (Also not slang.)
- beurré: drunk. (Slang. Literally, “buttered.”)
- bourré: drunk. (Slang. Literally, “stuffed” or “filled.”)
I should point out that American college students notoriously have far more slang words for “drunk” than the rest of us; I imagine that that’s more or less universal. (A common Linguistics 101 exercise is to send students home to collect those words in their dorm.) In the Navy, we might have said “three sheets to the wind,” but that’s almost literary for any other English speaker, I suspect.