Prévert and Les mystères de Paris: Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.

Normalcy through vocabulary. And poetry.

The fact that covid-19 has 50% of the world’s population under lockdown orders does not change the fact that in the US, it is National Poetry Month.  The French are getting cats to play tic-tac-toe (le morpion in French, which also means [genital] crab, and I cannot stop giggling like a schoolboy about that), Americans are watching Netflix, and the President of the United States is showing himself more and more to be le roi des cons–and Art goes on.

Jacques Prévert’s poem Pater noster has opening lines as good as any in the world of free verse (translations by me, sorry):

Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there

Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie

And we’ll stay here on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris

With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris

So, yeah: the cool neighborhood near me is now empty except for the homeless people living under tarps in the sheltered doorways of now-abandoned shops, Macron is urging the French to support health-care workers, and Trump is urging Americans to support airlines; and I am trying to restore some sense of normalcy to my life by learning my usual 10 words of French vocabulary per day.

So, I’m on a French-language furniture web site the other day trying to find a picture of some obscure item of furniture or another that I ran across while reading Colette’s Chéri, when I came across this: the mystères de Paris.  Literally, that means “the mysteries of Paris”–but it means so, so much more…and thus we have the Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.

It turns out that there is such a thing as a mystères de Paris–and it is a commode.  Not a commode in the French sense of the word–what’s called in English a dresser–but a commode in the English sense of the word–a bedside chair with a receptacle for pooping.  A bedside toilet, if you will.  It’s not just any kind of commode, though:

  1. It’s a disguised commode.
  2. It is usually made to look like a stack of books.

From the web site (translations by me, sorry):

Ce siège d’aisance prend la forme d’une pile de livres simulés. La partie supérieure s’ouvre comme un abattant pour laisser apparaître la cuvette. Ce petit meuble repose sur des pieds bas tournés en balustre ou découpés.

Généralement, ce siège de commodité assez original était décoré de belles et luxueuses couleurs.

This commode takes the form of a pile of fake books. The upper part opens as a lid to access the bowl.  This small piece of furniture sits on feet that have been [not sure what those carpentry terms mean].

Typically, this rather unusual commode was decorated with pretty, luxurious colors.

Mystères de Paris bedside toilet. Source:

If you’ve followed this site, you know that Prévert’s poetry is great for understanding what people mean when they talk about “the impossibility of translation.” This is a great example–I just can’t even imagine a way to render mystères de Paris into English, and forget about maintaining that rhyme:

….sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie

…on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris

With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris

(Yes, jolie and Paris rhyme in French.)

A Dutch-made mystères de Paris bedside toilet from 1850. Source:

(Wait, I forgot–more tic-tac-toe-playing cats…)


So…let’s all stay in, stay healthy, thank the people working in the grocery stores, thank the people working in the gas stations, thank the doctors, thank the nurses, thank the respiratory therapists–and ignore les maîtres de ce monde, les maîtres avec leurs prêtres, leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres–a line from later in the poem that is more than evocative of the coronavirus-era Trump.  And let’s take care of each other.

See this post for the full poem, as well as for a discussion of the line that I just mentioned.  You can exercise your oral comprehension skills with an English-language video, complete with subtitles, on how to make your own face mask here.

Mystères de Paris bedside toilet. Source:

17 thoughts on “Prévert and Les mystères de Paris: Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.”

  1. As you speak of “Les mystères de Paris”, I find interesting to note that this book had an immense fan club in the world by then . Théophile Gautier, a great poet of the time, wrote”Everywhere there are people who suspended their slow agony to receive the next book of this serie” . This serie was not about thrills, it was focusing on life of the poor people, and politics . Eugène Sue, the author, became a pioneer of Socialism around 1840, before Marx wrote his first book . He was in the French matrix of Socialism, born during the first Revolution with Gracchus Babeuf and was a friend of Proudhon, the one who said to the world “Property is theft” .
    On a literary note, in the 50s “Les nouveaux mystères de Paris” were published . These are detective novels, but in the French way . Their author, Léo Malet, is a real writer, who lived and worked when Paris was full of geniuses.. He grew up poor, went to Paris penniless in the 20s, started writing while being involved in class struggle politics, became a bit more anarchist than Marxist, all that while befriending a lot with the Surrealists great names
    “Les nouveaux mystères de Paris” have one adventure of the detective Nestor Burma in every arrondissement of the capital . Alas, there only are 15 books, he died too soon . They are great to read, fun and deep . I reread them now and then until now .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow–from your description of the original series, I wonder if they were deliberately chosen for the term for a bedside toilet made under the reign of the asshole Napoléon III! (Yes, I have some opinions about Charles-Louis…)


      1. So, NIII followed the series, so why couldn’t the term have caught on? The mystères de Paris is a second-half-of-the-19th-century thing, I *think*–can’t swear to it, though.


      2. The serie became a “hit” in 42 and 43, before the second half of the century . But usually pioneers create and the majority needs time to digest . And well, the whole XIXth century was a political revolutionary field in France, the class struggle momentum for humanity . Lost alas .
        Eugène Sue was one of the pillars of the temple in building . But Proudhon and Blanqui were really bigger pillars .

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The carpentry terms would translate as Baluster or tapered legs, I think. I am now itching (excuse mild pun) to use le morpion in speech. Something around Genital Crabs avoiding Donald Trump because he’s too revolting might do the trick ….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello . In popular classes “un morpion” meant in colloquial speech a little boy . It was very common when I was myself “un morpion” . This was the only meaning of the word I knew until I got 20 y/o .

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hello! How lovely to ‘see’ you, Phil. I’ve been out of action for a very long time but I’m back and very pleased to find that you are still imparting your boundless knowledge and wisdom. How are things with you? I hope you and all you care for are sensible, safe and smiling a little. And well. But that goes without saying. X

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I think that the example sentence that I found for “morpion” when I first ran across it was “accroché comme un vieux morpion à sa couille”–easy to remember, which is why I look for example sentences like that. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      1. They are ‘turned’ so can be vase like or more like spindles but always rounded and as ornate or as simple as the piece requires and the maker can be bothered with. Furniture and architectural French I’m quite good with as a result of a lovely friend of ours who is an architectural and art historian in thé Bourbonnais…. he and his wife live in one of the family chateaux and he’s made a successful business selling unwanted historic homes and often their contents to people that aspire. I used to go along and help with English when I was living the right side of the pond. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that again before the fat lady sings at my wake! The plan has slid again due to the pandemic so I doubt I’ll be resident in France before next summer but the thought keeps me going.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s an amazing poem–and a translation I’d be proud of if it were mine. Thank you for introducing me to it.

    There isn’t much about the British government’s handling of this crisis that I’d recommend, but they have, at least made some efforts to get the homeless off the street. Underfunded and screwed up in practice, but at least it’s an effort. All it took was realizing that it wasn’t just about the homeless, it was about everyone else as well, and all of a sudden the impossible became possible.

    …she said bitterly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I currently find myself living near a very hip neighborhood. It is usually bustling, but right now you see hardly anyone there but people living under tarps on the sidewalk. Combined with a couple of boarded-up stores and restaurants, it gives the area a definite zombie apocalypse vibe…

      Liked by 1 person

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