I’m watching a French movie about a Rom guy who finds God. In the part of the movie that I’m currently at, the plot involves a feud between an old man and a young guy. The old man feels disrespected, and wants revenge. This gets expressed linguistically in part by the way that various participants are referred to in the script. Specifically, disrespect for a man is communicated by referring to him with some variant or another of the word boy. In the little world in which I spent my teenaged years in, this was a huge insult–far better to be called mother fucker than to be called boy. The connotation is that you’re weak and insignificant. In his essay on the development of the concept of the intellectual in Ancien régime France during the mid-1700s, Robert Darnton talks about how the policeman and inspector of the book trade Joseph d’Hémery referred in his files to writers without social distinction as boy, regardless of their age. Gentlemen, in contrast, were referred to as men. As Darnton puts it, “Boy” implied marginality and served to place the unplaceable, the shadowy forerunners of the modern intellectual, who showed up in the police files as gens sans état (people without an estate). I was quite shocked when I found myself living in the southern US later in life and discovered that it’s quite common for older men there to address younger men as boy. Here are some of the words that are used in this way in the film:
- le gosse: kid. (In Quebec: testicle.)
- le gamin: kid, youngster.
Simultaneously, there’s a lot of talk in the film about testicles. It’s not cross-linguistically uncommon for testicles to be a metaphor for courage, and this Slate article by Juliet Lapidos maintains that such is the case in French. (I don’t know anyone in France well enough for them to use that kind of slang around me, so I can’t speak from experience, one way or the other, but I was able to validate this claim on WordReference.com.) (Another aside: an old friend used to claim that the following typology exists: languages that use the word nuts to refer to testicles, and languages that use the word eggs to refer to testicles.) Testicles are referred to in the film as follows:
- les couilles (f.pl.): balls (testicles). We saw this recently in the expression je m’en bat les couilles (I don’t give a shit).