Testicles and the evolution of the intellectual

The unexpected connections between a Romani trailer park, Enlightenment intellectuals, and a police inspector.

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220px-Joseph_D'Hemery
Joseph d’Hémery, policeman, inspector of the book trade and therefore of authors from 1748-1753. Picture source: by Nicolas-François Regnault (* 1746; † 1810) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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).

7 thoughts on “Testicles and the evolution of the intellectual”

  1. You know, there are many many other ways to say “couilles” in slang . Same with any sexual body parts, or also for the head, the feet, the hands, etc…
    Your Quebec reference reminds me a funny story that happened to a man I did well know . He was the ex-secretary of redaction of the very famous comics magazine “Pilote”, founded by the creator of Asterix . The Pilote staff had been invited in Montreal for a cultural event . The first evening was a very formal “soirée” with the Mayor, the Governor and many long dresses and dinner jackets.
    My friend had to make a speech and he mentioned “mes gosses” . He felt something was wrong somewhere but went on and eventually said “mes gosses” again . The wave of uneasiness that flooded the assistance shocked him, but the poor lad couldn’t fancy where this was coming from . He then tried to go on but his voice fainted . Ha ha, I would have paid to be there .

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    1. That’s a great story! So, are testicles also used in French as a metaphor for courage, as we might say “I don’t have the balls to do that,” where “balls” is slang for “testicles” and the meaning of the sentence is “I don’t have the courage to do that”?

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  2. Yes indeed . “Tu n’as pas les couilles de faire ça !”, “Pour faire ça il faut avoir des couilles” . But this only works with “couilles”, like “cojones” in Franco’s country .
    Beware, “avoir les boules” means something different . It means being really annoyed, upset, angry, bitter, disappointed, by something . “Quand il m’a dit non, j’ai vraiment eu les boules” .

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  3. “Les boules” is ONE of the slangs for testicles . I’d need a whole booklet to enumerate all the ways the French have found to mean penis and testicles …

    If you want to penetrate the abstract idea that eventually led to the modern meaning of “avoir les boules”, you know the feeling we can have in our throat when something upsets or worries us . One can feel like small hard balls there . And the feeling can operate in our belly too . Well some French feel they are so upset their gonads have come up through their stomach to their throat . Saying the phrase is often accompanied by the gesture of both hands along the throat, making the shape of two balls .
    OK, this was our minute of linguistics . Behind each slang or colloquial way there is sometimes a sophisticated process .

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