Stupid questions, the Paris Métro, and some vocabulary

Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as a stupid question.

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. (See the English notes below for an explanation of the various and sundry linguistic oddities in that sentence.) I have trained myself to spend very little time on social media, and now that my native land no longer has a president who does not seem to be clear on the facts that Australia is our friend but Russia isn’t, and has complete and sole control over the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons, I typically don’t check the newspapers more than twice a day. Quora, though–it can suck me down rabbit holes for hours. It lets people pose questions. Anyone. On anything. Anything. And anyone who feels like answering, can.


A common saying in English: there’s no such thing as a stupid question. When do people say it? When other people start questions with something like “this is a stupid question, but…” …followed by a question. There’s certainly some truth to that. In fact, asking “stupid” questions was the only way that I survived graduate school. Graduate students tend to be terrified to ask any question that they fear might reveal that they don’t know everything. But, since I am covered with tattoos (not unusual for young folks these days, but very unusual for people of my advanced age), I go through life on the assumption that everybody assumes I’m stupid anyway, so why not ask questions? As one of my professors said to me in a very short note that accompanied my A- grade in Syntax 102, which was much higher than I actually deserved: You asked the questions that other people were afraid to ask.

So, yeah: you, Dear Reader, are smart, and if you have a question, other people around you do, too. They won’t think that you’re stupid if you ask it–they might very well thank you for asking it.


So, yeah: the “no such thing as a stupid question” claim is not totally without merit. Absolutes are not often correct, and “no such thing” is most definitely an absolute. My personal candidate for questions that truly are stupid would be questions that assume something that is completely wrong, without any apparent awareness of the assumption. Case in point: this question that I ran across on Quora today…

Why are people allowed to pee in the Paris Metro? It always stinks.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

In fact, the Paris metro does not always stink. But, more pertinently: people are not allowed to pee on the Paris metro. Responses to this kind of stupid question should begin by countering the false assumption, as does this one:

People are not allowed to pee in the Paris Metro. If you see someone peeing there, it is either someone who is living there because they are homeless, or (MUCH less commonly), someone who is very drunk.

This blog post will tell you a bit about the smells of Paris, but before you go read it, think about this: people do not pee in random places in metro stations. Homeless people are careful to pee in the gutters that run along the bottom of the walls to keep water from building up on the “quais” (I don’t know the English word—the platform, maybe?) during wet weather. If you see someone peeing in the stairs or someplace stupid like that, they’re drunk, not homeless.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

…and with that rant off my chest, it’s time to step outside with a cup of coffee to enjoy a fine American tobacco product and watch the lizards frolic, ’cause Louisiana. But, first: English notes!


English notes

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me.

cash cow: something that produces a lot of income very reliably.

to make a mint: to make a lot of money. A mint is a place where money is (physically) produced. Where bills are printed, where coins are struck. (Now there’s an obscure lexical item for ya!) The expression has some weird behaviors related to the verb to make, but before we get to them, let’s see its basic use:

  • Hey now, that film was game-changing. Do you realise how many genuinely terrible found footage films we would probably have been denied if Blair Witch hadn’t come out of nowhere and made a mint? Source: this tweet
  • My sister, a former rare book dealer, made a MINT selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont. They’d last 6-18 months… Source: this tweet
  • when this dude retires, he’s gonna make a mint doing sports talk in pittsburgh. i don’t mean that as a compliment. Source: this tweet.

In the last two examples, we see that you can specify what was done to make the money: selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont, doing sports talk in Pittsburgh.

There is another way to specify what caused that money to be made. In this case, you will use something that is a noun (or close to one), introduced by off of, or just off:

  • My paternal grandfather made a lot of money off of attractive young women. (True–family scandal.)
  • I made no money at all off of the sale of my first house. (Sadly, also true.)
  • You can’t make money off dreams. (Not true.)

So, now we go back to the first sentence of this blog post: To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. Clear now?


The notions of cash cows and of making money off of things reminds me of this vignette from Jacque Prévert’s epic poem Encore une fois sur le fleuve and its “gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs”:

Et la Seine continue son chemin

et passe sous le pont Saint-Michel

d’où l’on peut voir de loin

l’archange et le démon et le bassin

avec qui passent devant eux

une vieille faiseuse d’anges un boy-scout malheureux

et un triste et gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs
Et celui-là s’avance d’un pas lent vers la Seine en regardant les tours de Notre-Dame
Et cependant

ni l’église ni le fleuve ne l’intéressent mais seulement la vieille boîte d’un bouquiniste
Et il s’arrête figé et fasciné devant l’image d’une petite fille couverte de papier glacé

Elle est en tablier noir et son tablier est relevé une religieuse aux yeux cernés la fouette

Et la cornette de la sœur est aussi blanche que les dessous de la fillette
Mais comme le bouquiniste regarde le vieux monsieur congestionné celui-ci gêné détourne les yeux et laissant là le pauvre livre obscène

jette un coup d’oeil innocent détaché

vers l’autre rive de la Seine

The photo of Jacques Prévert at the top of this post is from 1977, and is one of the last. It is copyrighted by Agence France Presse. I found it here:

Luis de Lión’s “El enfermo,” and our responsibilities

El enfermo

si tus labios en verdad fueran de azúcar

y no solamente dulces,

hace años que habría muerto…

Tú sabes que soy diabético!

Luis de Lión, Poemas del volcán de fuego

if your lips really were made of sugar

and not just sweet,

I would have died years ago.

you know that I’m diabetic!

Attempt at translation by me

I like this little poem by Luis de Lión. Quite a bit, actually. Why? And is it even a poem, per se?

Matthew Zapruder, in his very readable book Why Poetry, maintains that the important question is less “is this a poem?” than “what makes something poetic?” I can dig it–personally, I usually find questions less interesting than the meta-question “How could I know the answer, one way or the other?”

One of his answers is that poeticalness (not sure that’s a word, but spell-correct isn’t hating it) comes from doing the unexpected with language; that when you experience something as poetic, per se, you are reacting to that unexpectedness.

One of the primary sources of that unexpectedness is the combination of words that you would not normally expect to go together. A favorite example, from Daniela Gîfu’s Ianuar:

înariparea îngerească

a speranței

Daniela Gîfu, from her poem Ianuar

the angelic wrath

of hope

My feeble attempt (or perhaps Google Translate’s) at a translation

Hope being wrathful? Wrath that is angelic? Completely unexpected–and my favorite lines of the poem.

The unexpectedness of the language of a poem does not have to come from its vocabulary; unexpected mixes of style can do it, as well. And that’s how I read de Lión’s poem. When you start out with this very artistic language:

si tus labios en verdad fueran de azúcar

y no solamente dulces,

hace años que habría muerto…

…which very much reminds me of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130, first four lines

…and with the poem’s self-consciously (to me, at any rate) poetic beginning, the last thing I would expect is the very spoken-language line that follows:

¡Tú sabes que soy diabético!

There is a soft spot in my heart for poets who kick ass. Not in the sense of poètes qui déchirent, who are good poets, but in the sense of poets who will be violent when that is what is required to protect good and defeat evil. Henry Reed, Guillaume Apollinaire, Randall Jarrell, … You’ve read all of their poetry here. Luis de Léon was such a man. From Wikipedia:

Luis de Lión, born José Luis de León Díaz (August 19, 1939 – June 6, 1984) was a Guatemalan writer kidnapped on May 15, 1984 by elements of Guatemalan Army intelligence, and henceforth “disappeared“. His posthumous novel, El tiempo principia en Xibalbá (Time Commences in Xibalbá) is considered an important work in modern Central American literature.[1]

Born into a Kaqchikel Maya family, his father’s work as a policeman during the rule of dictator Jorge Ubico enabled him to receive basic education. He completed his studies in Guatemala City, graduating with a teaching certification in primary education.[1]

Being of Kaqchikel origin, he belonged to an ethnic group that was subject to horrible depradations by the government and by right-wing civilian militia groups. The a priori vulnerability of being Kaqchikel did not stop him from acting. I haven’t come across any evidence–or even the suggestion–that de Lión ever took up arms. (I did read the Spanish-language Wikipedia entry on him, and found nothing there.) I suggest that he did something more courageous: unarmed, he very openly opposed a murderous dictatorship. Wikipedia again:

He worked as a teacher in various places in Guatemala until he was made a professor of literature at Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. As a leader of the communist Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (“Guatemalan Workers’ Party”), he promoted universal access to quality education as a means to improve the quality of life of Guatemalan people. In San Juan del Obispo, the village near Antigua Guatemala where he was born, he founded a small library in which he taught literacy to his former neighbors.

This was during the brutal Guatemalan civil war of 1960-1996. (Your dates may vary.) From Wikipedia:

On May 15, 1984, while he was driving to work in the Centro Histórico [es] of Guatemala City, a group of armed plainclothes men forced him into an unmarked car. He joined the ranks of more than 30,000 citizens “disappeared” by the military rulers of Guatemala during the 1980s as part of the Guatemalan Civil War. Nothing was known of his fate until 1999, when his name appeared in Diario Militar [es], a document published in Harper’s Magazine containing photographs and information on the capture and execution of 183 people, and in which he was listed as number 135. From this source, it became known that he had been killed on June 6, 1984, about three weeks after his abduction.[2]

That left plenty of time for torture, but that is not something that we are likely to know about, one way or the other. You will find this brave man’s picture at the top of this post.

These are dark times in the United States. I can usually stop complaining about my problems by reminding myself that they are, after all, First World Problems. I couldn’t get the lane that I wanted at the rifle range; I can’t get my new iPhone to pair with my car’s audio system; ammunition rations are down to three boxes a day again. Now, for the first time in my life, I have real problems. Third World Problems. My country is being ravaged by a disease due to gross presidential incompetence. Worse: a mob just attacked one of the three branches of the national government; the battle flag of the secessionist forces from our very own Civil War was paraded–for the first time ever–in our Capitol building. The attack was encouraged by our very own president, who did not condemn it until it was defeated and the Capitol retaken. It is said that he watched, hopefully, while the attack was happening. I wasn’t there, nor do I know anyone who was; unfortunately, that behavior would be pretty consistent with everything that we have seen from him over the course of the past four years.

Unlike the current president (until noon tomorrow as I write this), I served in the US military. My enlistment contract had an expiration date; my oath of enlistment–to protect the Constitution of the United States of America, from enemies both foreign and domestic–did not. I have my responsibilities. Luis de Lión had his, and I suspect that they required more courage than mine do. Yours might not be the same as either of ours–but, I encourage you to figure out what they are. And to fulfill them.

A paw, a questing nose: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Company”

I’ve read it on a guided missile cruiser; in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; …

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1968 children’s novel A wizard of Earthsea. A children’s novel, yes, and I first read it as a child. I’ve also read it on watch in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser; stretched out in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; most recently, deep into my 50s and huddled under a blanket taking refuge from the Colorado deep-winter cold. The children’s novel takes a position on the relationship between language and meaning that has been debated back and forth since Socrates–no wonder I became a linguist.

Before her death in 2018, Le Guin finished a book of poetry: So far so good. (Reminds me of the French joke about the guy falling out a window, with the punchline jusqu’ici, tout va bien–probably not an accident.) Here’s a little gem from it, titled Company:

A paw, a questing nose half waken me,

and I let him get under the covers.

He curls up and purrs himself asleep.

Cats are less troublesome than lovers.

Ursula K. Le Guin, “Company”


  1. Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed.
  2. It’s always worth the trouble to read a poem aloud–I didn’t even realize that covers/lovers rhymes until I did so.
  3. Poeticality comes in part from unexpected word combinations. But, “unexpected” is very context-dependent–you wouldn’t be shocked if I used the word alliteration in a post about poetry, but it would probably surprise you if it appeared in an essay about that time I climbed the wall of a ravine to get to a Port-A-Potty. (It didn’t end well.)
  4. Things could be otherwise. Take the last sentence of the poem–Cats are less troublesome than lovers–and put it at the beginning. The result makes every bit as much narrative sense as Le Guin’s version–maybe even more so. But, as a poem, it would kinda suck.
  5. Why, if that last sentence gives you a better narrative at the beginning of the poem, does it give you a better poem when it occurs at the end? I think it’s related to an unexpected word combination. Specifically: when you’ve got a poem that’s mostly monosyllables and so far has had no word over two syllables long, troublesome packs quite a punch. Define the context in in terms of word length, and troublesome stands out quite a bit from a bunch of mono- and bisyllables.
  6. It bears repeating: Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed. I wish I’d known her.

Picture source: By Oregon State University – Ursula Le Guin, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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:

Coup de grâce: Don Marquis’s “freddy the rat perishes”

Some of the most traumatic experiences of my life have involved me killing a mouse.  Tonight was no exception. 

Some of the most traumatic experiences of my life have involved me killing a mouse.  Tonight was no exception.  Delivering the coup de grâce was miserable for me–besides being soft-hearted, I have an incredible phobia about dead animals–but I felt like after a long and hard-fought battle, the furry little warrior deserved it.

The experience brought to mind the end of this poem by Don Marquis.  It is all in lower-case because it has been typed by a cockroach.  Archie (yes, that’s the cockroach’s name) depresses the keys by jumping on them; this precludes ever hitting the shift key to make upper-case letters.  Many thanks to the Don Marquis blog, where I found the text.  Want to know more about the strange case of Archie the cockroach poet?  See this post.

freddy the rat perishes

By Don Marquis, in “archy and mehitabel,” 1927

listen to me there have
been some doings here since last
i wrote there has been a battle
behind that rusty typewriter cover
in the corner
you remember freddy the rat well
freddy is no more but
he died game the other
day a stranger with a lot of
legs came into our
little circle a tough looking kid
he was with a bad eye

who are you said a thousand legs
if i bite you once
said the stranger you won t ask
again he he little poison tongue said
the thousand legs who gave you hydrophobia
i got it by biting myself said
the stranger i m bad keep away
from me where i step a weed dies
if i was to walk on your forehead it would
raise measles and if
you give me any lip i ll do it

they mixed it then
and the thousand legs succumbed
well we found out this fellow
was a tarantula he had come up from
south america in a bunch of bananas
for days he bossed us life
was not worth living he would stand in
the middle of the floor and taunt
us ha ha he would say where i
step a weed dies do
you want any of my game i was
raised on red pepper and blood i am
so hot if you scratch me i will light
like a match you better
dodge me when i m feeling mean and
i don t feel any other way i was nursed
on a tabasco bottle if i was to slap
your wrist in kindness you
would boil over like job and heaven
help you if i get angry give me
room i feel a wicked spell coming on

last night he made a break at freddy
the rat keep your distance
little one said freddy i m not
feeling well myself somebody poisoned some
cheese for me im as full of
death as a drug store i
feel that i am going to die anyhow
come on little torpedo don t stop
to visit and search then they
went at it and both are no more please
throw a late edition on the floor i want to
keep up with china we dropped freddy
off the fire escape into the alley with
military honors


Picture source:

Prévert’s “Le balayeur:” French, Hungarian, and a bit of English

It’s taken me a long time to understand the idea of “the impossibility of translation.”  Jacques Prévert has given me some insight into what that might mean.

It’s taken me a long time to understand the idea of “the impossibility of translation.”  Jacques Prévert has given me some insight into what that might mean.

Prévert was a poet, playwright, and screenwriter who came to prominence in the post-war period.  (The odd word playwright is discussed in the English notes below.)  More than most poets I’ve run into in any language, he plays with the sounds of words.  For example, his poem Le temps haletant, “The panting time,” which sounds like le temps a le temps, “time has time,” or from one of my favorites, Il ne faut pas…, which starts Il ne faut pas laisser les intellectuels jouer avec les allumettes–“you must not let intellectuals play with matches”–and ends le monde mental ment monumentalment.  Notice all of the strings of ment, which is the 3rd person singular present tense of the verb to lie:

Le monde mental ment monumentalement.

Translatable in a way that doesn’t lose how wonderful that line is?  I think not.

Today’s National Poetry Month treat is his poem Le balayeur, which I have only found on a page with a translation into Hungarian–why not… Here’s the stanza that got me thinking about “the impossibility of translation.”  To establish the context: an angel is trying to convince a street sweeper to jump into the Seine to save someone who’s drowning.  The sweeper (le balayeur) eventually concedes:

le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur

In the end
the sweeper takes off his jacket
because he can’t do otherwise
And because he’s a very good swimmer
climbs onto the parapet
and executes an excellent swan dive
and disappears
And the angel
literally beside himself with joy
praises the Lord

Here’s what makes that impossible to translate well: we’re talking about an angel here, l’ange, right?  And that whole part of the poem is full of expressions that are built on the noun “angel:”

le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur

Here are the relevant French/English correspondences:

  • le saut de l’ange: literally “angel’s jump,” but in English, “swan dive”
  • aux anges: literally something like “with the angels,” which in English is an extremely euphemistic way of saying “dead;” meanwhile, the English equivalent of aux anges would be “over the moon; beside oneself; beside oneself with joy.”

The thing that I find really clever, though, is the last verse of this part of the poem, where the angel praises the Lord:

louange le Seigneur

Sigh–Prévert is wonderful…

Here’s the poem, followed by its translation into Hungarian by Justus Pál, followed by some notes on the English in this post:

Le Balayeur

Au bord d’un fleuve
le balayeur balaye
il s’ennuie un peu
il regarde le soleil
il est amoureux
Un couple enlacé passe
il le suit des yeux
Le couple disparaît
il s’assoit
sur une grosse pierre
Mais soudain la musique
l’air du temps
qui était doux et charmant
devient grinçant
et menaçant

Apparaît alors
l’Ange gardien du balayeur
qui d’un très simple geste
lui fait honte de sa paresse
et lui conseille de reprendre le labeur

L’Ange gardien plante l’index vers le ciel
et disparaît
Le balayeur reprend son balai

Une jolie femme arrive
et s’accoude au parapet
regarde le fleuve
Elle est de dos
et très belle ainsi
Le Balayeur sans faire de bruit
s’accoude à côté d’elle
et d’une main timide et chaleureuse
la caresse
ou plutôt fait seulement semblant
mimant le geste de l’homme qui tout à l’heure
caressait son amie en marchant

La femme s’en va sans le voir
Il reste seul avec son balai
et soudain constate
que l’Ange est revenu
et l’a vu
et le blâme
d’un regard douloureux
et d’un geste de plus en plus affectueux
et de plus en plus menaçant

Le balayeur reprend son balai
et balaye
L’Ange gardien disparaît

Une autre femme passe
Il s’arrête de balayer
et d’un geste qui en dit long
lui parle de la pluie et du beau temps
et de sa beauté à elle
tout particulièrement

L’Ange apparaît
La femme s’enfuit épouvantée

L’Ange une nouvelle fois
fait comprendre au balayeur
qu’il est là pour balayer
puis disparaît

Le balayeur reprend son balai

Soudain des cris
des plaintes
venant du fleuve
Sans aucun doute
les plaintes de quelqu’un qui se noie

Le balayeur abandonne son balai
Mais soudain hausse les épaules et
indifférent aux cris venant du fleuve
continue de balayer

L’Ange gardien apparaît
Et le balayeur balaye
comme il n’a jamais balayé
Travail exemplaire et soigné

Mais l’Ange toujours l’index au ciel
remue des ailes courroucées
et fait comprendre au balayeur
que c’est très beau bien sûr
de balayer
mais que tout de même
il y a quelqu’un
qui est peut-être en train de se noyer
Et il insiste
le balayeur faisant la sourde oreille

le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur
La musique est une musique
indéniablement céleste
le balayeur revient
tenant dans ses bras
l’être qu’il a sauvé

C’est une fille très belle
Et dévêtue

L’Ange la toise d’un mauvais œil
Le balayeur
la couche sur un banc
avec une infinie délicatesse
et la soigne
la ranime
la caresse

L’Ange intervient
et donne au balayeur
le conseil de rejeter dans le fleuve
cette « diablesse »

La « diablesse » qui reprend goût à la vie
grâce aux caresses du balayeur
se lève
et sourit

Le balayeur sourit aussi
Ils dansent tous deux

L’Ange les menace des foudres du ciel

Ils éclatent de rire
et s’en vont en dansant

L’Ange gardien essuie une larme
ramasse le balai
et balaye… balaye… balaye… balaye…

Az utcaseprő (Balett) (Hungarian)

A folyó partján
seper az utcaseprő
unatkozik tán
felnéz a napra
kicsit szerelmes ő
Arra megy egy ölelkező
szerelmespár rájuk tapad a szeme
A pár eltűnik
egy kőre ő
Most a zene
az idő dallama
mely eddig szép volt és szelíd
hirtelen megkeményedik
csikorgó lesz és fenyegető

Ekkor megjelenik
az utcaseprő őrangyala
nagyon egyszerű mozdulat
reápirít a lustaság miatt
s azt ajánlja jó lesz munkához látnia

Így inti ég fele emelt ujjal
majd eltűnik az angyal
Söprűt ragad az utcaseprő

Jön egy remek nő
a párkányra könyököl
a folyóba néz
Háttal fordul felé
így is nagyon szép
Az utcaseprő nesztelenül odalép
mellé könyököl
félénk meleg kezével
azaz csak úgy tesz mintha simogatna
utánozza az előbbi férfit aki barátnőjével
erre sétált és simogatta

A nő elmegy észre sem veszi
ő meg ott marad a söprűjével
s hirtelen megállapítja
hogy az angyal közben visszalibbent
és látott mindent
megrovón néz rá
fájdalmas pillantással
mind szeretőbben
s fenyegetőbben

Az utcaseprő veszi a söprűjét megint
söpörni kezd
Az angyalnak hűlt helye mire feltekint

Arra megy egy másik nő
Abbahagyja a söprést
Sokatmondó mozdulatokkal
ezt is azt is elmeséli neki
hogy ő mármint a nő
milyen gyönyörű azt dicséri

Megjelenik az őrangyal
Rémülten menekül a nő

Az őrangyal még egyszer
megmagyarázza az utcaseprőnek
azért van ott hogy söpörjön
aztán lelép

Az utcaseprő seprűt ragad miként elébb

Hirtelen kiáltásokat hall
a folyó felől
fuldoklik valaki az kiabál

Az utcaseprő félreteszi a seprőt
De aztán meggondolja magát vállat von
és nem is hederít a kiáltásokra
söpör tovább

Megjelenik az őrangyal
Az utcaseprő pedig úgy söpör
hogy hasonlítaná sem lehet semmit a söpréséhez
Példás és pontos munkát végez

Ám az angyal ég felé emeli mutatóujját
Haragos szárnyát meglebbenti
s értésére adja az utcaseprőnek
hogy persze nagyon szép feladat
utcát seperni
de hogy viszont
valaki esetleg vízbe fúl ezalatt
És nyomatékosan rábeszéli
mivel az utcaseprő
hallani sem akar róla

A végén
az utcaseprő leveti zubbonyát
mást nem tehet nem hagyják békén
kitűnő úszó lévén
felkapaszkodik a párkányra
és csodálatos „angyal-fejessel„
eltűnik a habok között
Az angyal pedig ezalatt
a szó szoros értelmében angyali hangulatban
dicséri az Urat
A zene ezúttal
kétségtelenül mennyei jellegű
Az utcaseprő
hirtelen felmerül
karjában hozza
kit megmentett a habok közül

Nagyon szép lány
és meztelen

Az angyal rossz szemmel nézi a dolgot
Az utcaseprő
végtelen gyengéden
lefekteti egy padra

Ám az angyal közbelép
s melegen ajánlja az utcaseprőnek
hogy dobja vissza a folyóba.
ezt a „nőarcú ördögöt”

közben a „nőarcú ördög” életkedve
hála az utcaseprő simogatásának visszatér

Az utcaseprő is mosolyog
Mindkettő táncra perdül

Az őrangyal megfenyegeti őket a menny villámaival

Azik ketten kinevetik
átölelik egymást
elballagnak tánclépésben szemérmetlenül

Az őrangyal letörli kicsorduló könnyét
veszi a söprűt
és seper… seper… seper… seper…

English notes

I used the word playwright to describe Jacques Prévert.  It seems somewhat bizarre, in that it means “someone who writes plays,” but it ends not with -write, but with -wright.  For example, here are some other words that refer to people who write things:

  • copywriter
  • ghostwriter
  • screenwriter
  • skywriter
  • speechwriter
  • songwriter

Copywriter, speechwriter, and songwriter are clear analogues: they mean someone who writes copy, speeches, and songs, respectively, while a playwright is someone who writes plays.  What gives?

As my theater professor explained it to me (decades ago–yikes…), the intent is to convey the idea that writing a play is a matter of craft, of arduous labor, of building.  How does that work?  Because other words that end in -wright refer to people who build things “by the sweat of their brows:”

  • wheelwright (le vanneur, I think)
  • wainwright (person who builds builds wagons–I had to look that one up myself)
  • shipwright (person who builds ships)
  • cartwright (person who makes carts)


Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée

In which Victor Hugo reminds me of my French grandfather.

Victor Hugo is well-loved in America for Les misérables–not for the book, but for the English-language musical that was made from it in 1980.  (It’s so popular that it has a nickname: Les mis.)  Even children know him; or, more accurately, know of his work, through the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame–Quasimodo is a character recognized throughout American culture.

Hugo was a complicated guy.  He started out as a conservative, then became so vocally opposed to the dickwad “emperor” Napoléon III that he had to go into exile.  (Dickwad explained in the English notes below.)  He returned to Paris when the Second Empire fell, and stayed there through the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870-1871 and the Commune (my favorite of the four French Revolutions).  He fought against the death penalty, but was very much in favor of the colonization of West and North Africa; unlike many of his generation, he never spoke out about slavery.  Wikipedia lists a couple of long-term mistresses and lots of casual affairs–he was sexually active until a few weeks before his death at the age of 83.  (Reminds me of my French grandfather, who fathered my mother and aunt in his sixties.  ¡Muy fuerte!, as a Mexican friend said when I told him the story–I will not try to describe the accompanying gesture.)  He also seems to have been devoted to his children, both legitimate and extra-marital.

His poetry is far less known than his prose, but this being National Poetry Month, today I’ll give you a poem of his that I love.  It’s one of those things that is dear to me not because of the poem itself, but because of my associations with it, so you might not love it quite as much as I do.  Nonetheless: it’s a good one–if, like me, you are trying to learn to speak French, I recommend that you spring $0.69 for the recording and explication of it by Camille Chevalier-Karfis of the French Today series of French-language instructional materials.  Here’s the poem, and don’t forget to scroll down for the English notes, where I talk about the noun dickwad and the phrasal verb to spring [quantity of money] for [something].  Native speakers (of French): there are also a couple of French questions at the bottom of the page.)

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée

–Victor Hugo

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée,
Assise, les pieds nus, parmi les joncs penchants ;
Moi qui passais par là, je crus voir une fée,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu t’en venir dans les champs ?

Elle me regarda de ce regard suprême
Qui reste à la beauté quand nous en triomphons,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu, c’est le mois où l’on aime,
Veux-tu nous en aller sous les arbres profonds ?

Elle essuya ses pieds à l’herbe de la rive ;
Elle me regarda pour la seconde fois,
Et la belle folâtre alors devint pensive.
Oh ! comme les oiseaux chantaient au fond des bois !

Comme l’eau caressait doucement le rivage !
Je vis venir à moi, dans les grands roseaux verts,
La belle fille heureuse, effarée et sauvage,
Ses cheveux dans ses yeux, et riant au travers.

English notes

dickwad: jerk, asshole.  Like many other English-language slang terms for jerks, it is derived from a slang term meaning penis–in this case, dick, which is not quite baby-talk, but is nonetheless somewhat childlike or, at any rate, not very sophisticated.  And yet: don’t say it in front of my grandmother.

to spring for: to spend money on something.  It can have an implication of spending money for someone else, specifically, especially in the third person–but that is not necessarily the case.  Some examples (invented by me, for clarity):

  • I’m short on money right now, but yesterday I sprung for a book on famous Second Empire courtesans.  Tourists today would never guess what went on in the Palais Garnier in those days…  No implication that it was for someone else here–it’s clear from the context (at least to a native speaker) that I bought the book for myself.  (…and I did!)
  • My fucking parents won’t spring for week in Mexico for spring break.  (Here it’s pretty clear that the spoiled college student (not me) is complaining about a third party–his parents–not being willing to underwrite the expense of this particular “spring break” (school vacation around Eastertime) adventure for him.

The expression can also include a specific amount of money, in which case it is the direct object of the verb:

  • I recommend that you spring $0.69 for the recording and explication of it by Camille Chevalier-Karfis of the French Today series of French-language instructional materials.   (That’s from this blog post.)
  • I’m short on money right now, but I sprung $3.50 for a short book on the Battle of Waterloo yesterday.  (…which is absolutely true!)

…and yes, the past tense (and past participle) of to spring is sprung.

French question

Native speakers: in this context, how would you interpret riant au travers?

For LG, la fée que je crus voir.  


Prévert’s Pater Noster

Our Father who art in Heaven // Stay there

Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux
Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie
Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris
Qui valent bien celui de la Trinité
Avec son petit canal de l’Ourcq
Sa grande muraille de Chine
Sa rivière de Morlaix
Ses bêtises de Cambrai
Avec son Océan Pacifique
Et ses deux bassins aux Tuilleries
Avec ses bons enfants et ses mauvais sujets
Avec toutes les merveilles du monde
Qui sont là
Simplement sur la terre
Offertes à tout le monde
Émerveillées elles-mêmes d’être de telles merveilles
Et qui n’osent se l’avouer
Comme une jolie fille nue qui n’ose se montrer
Avec les épouvantables malheurs du monde
Qui sont légion
Avec leurs légionnaires
Aves leur tortionnaires
Avec les maîtres de ce monde
Les maîtres avec leurs prêtres leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres
Avec les saisons
Avec les années
Avec les jolies filles et avec les vieux cons
Avec la paille de la misère pourrissant dans l’acier des canons.

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there
And we’ll stay here on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty
With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris
Which are worth every bit as much as the Trinity
With her little Canal of the Ourcq
Her Great Wall of China
Her Morlaix River
Her stupidities of Cambrai
With her Pacific Ocean
And her two fountains of the Tuileries
With her good children and her bad apples
With all of the wonders of the world
That are here
Just right here on Earth
Free to all the world
In wonder over being such wonders
And who don’t dare admit it to themselves
Like a beautiful naked girl who doesn’t dare show herself
With the dreadful calamities of the world
Which are legion
With its legionnaires
With its torturers
With the masters of this world
The masters with their priests, their traitors, and their mercenaries
With the seasons
With the years
With the pretty girls and with the old jerks
With the straw of misery rotting in the steel of the cannons.

As someone smarter than me first observed: love poetry tends to be pro-love, while war poetry tends to be anti-war.  This one is by Jacques Prévert, a veteran of the First World War who was a major figure in French poetry, theater, and cinema after the Second World War.  There’s a lot of love in his poetry, a lot of Paris in his poetry–and a lot of war.  Like almost everyone who has ever been in a war, he hated it.  This poem follows a common pattern of Prévert’s war poetry: start off with something sweet and funny, and then…the war comes along.

Reading Prévert was the first thing that ever really made me grasp “the impossibility of translation.”  Most good poets will, at some point or another, play around with the sounds of the language; most of the time, I don’t notice it.  Prévert pushes it far enough for even me to get it.  For example, here are my second-favorite lines of the poem:

Avec les maîtres de ce monde
Les maîtres avec leurs prêtres leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres

The bolded words are all rhyming monosyllables.  I’ll just note in passing that when spoken, the lines have the effect of someone beating on a drum.  I’ll just note in passing that there is no way to translate that while maintaining that beautiful rhythm, that repetition of the internal rhyme.  I’ll just note in passing that as someone who loves the circumflex accent about as much as anything else he loves about the French language, the fact that each of those words has one is… a joy.  But, I’ll dwell a bit more on the vocabulary.

Le reître is obscure enough that even educated French people don’t necessarily know it.  Here’s what I found when I looked it up:

HIST. MILIT. Cavalier allemand mercenaire au service de la France aux xveet xvies. Vainement aussi il [le roi Henri III] tenta, en négociant, d’arrêter une armée allemande, vingt mille reîtres en marche pour rejoindre les rebelles de l’ouest et du Midi (BainvilleHist. Fr., t. 1, 1924, p. 179).

Translation: German mercenary in the service of France in the 15th and 16th centuries.  (I believe it’s also a regionalism meaning something like an old (retired?) soldier.  Being a fat old bald guy who spent 9.5 years in the service of his country: I can dig it.)

As an American, I find the word reître interesting because it opens a window on something quite topical: the US military’s low level of support for Trump.  He’s at under 50% approval among service members as a whole, and at 30% in the officer ranks.  Why?  Lots of reasons, some of which I’ve written about elsewhere.  The relevant one in this case: conscience.

When you join the American military, you take an oath.  The oath is not to protect the country, or the president, and certainly not to protect the flag.  (Has anyone ever been stupid enough to kill for a piece of cloth?)  The oath is to protect the Constitution.

What’s the Constitution all about?  Basic principles.  Principles in the sense of what is right, and what is wrong.  Note what is not in there: money.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Let’s go back to the definition of reître now:

German mercenary in the service of France in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Is there anything wrong with being German?  No.  Is there anything wrong with being in the service of France?  No.  Is there anything wrong with being a mercenary?  Absolutely.

Being in the American military does not have much to do with the question What would you die for?  That’s straightforward: in the American military, you might die if your boss makes a stupid mistake, but if your boss doesn’t make a stupid mistake, you’re probably coming home again.  The question, then, is this: What would you kill for?  The answer to that: basic principles.  Justice, liberty, tranquility.  Notice what’s not on that list: money.  The American warfighter is not a mercenary.

How does that relate to President Donald J. Trump?  Because he–never a fighting man himself–seems to think that we do, in fact, kill for money.  Here are the kinds of quotes that make an American military person think that their Commander in Chief should not, in fact, be their Commander in Chief.  They are President Trump talking about American commitments of military troops to our allies:

…why are we doing this all free?…They should be paying us for this. 

President Donald J. Trump, excerpted from a Fox News interview with Greta van Susteren on April 5th, 2013: response to a question on US troop commitments in South Korea.

they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.

President Donald J. Trump, from an interview with Anderson Cooper, quoted here.

…they [South Korea and Japan] have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.  Here’s the thing, with Japan, they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves.

President Donald J. Trump, CNN Town Hall on March 29th, 2016, quoted here.

My 9.5 years in the US Navy ended over 30 years ago.  One of my ex-military buddies is less than 30 years old.  Point being: I have some personal insight into the views of American military veterans over a wide range of time.  I get why the kids in the military today support President Trump at a level even lower than the general American population.  I get why my military veteran friends support President Trump at a level much lower than the kids on active duty.  I don’t want to get paid to kill people.  What non-sociopath does?

Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: Lexical fields

I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze…

In honor of National Poetry Month…

In a book about war poetry, I once read a striking point: poetry about love tends to be pro-love, while poetry about war tends to be anti-war.  This observation is probably related to the American military’s low level of support for Trump (under 50% overall, as it has been for a long time; about 30% in the officer ranks): he seems to feel virile when orders a bombing or a missile strike, while the military people who have to carry it out are much more likely to just feel guilty. (The link goes to a list of articles on the subjects of guilt and shame in combat veterans from the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed/MEDLINE database of biomedical journal articles.)

Randall Jarrell, the author of today’s poem, was a professor at the University of Texas-Austin when the Second World War started.  He left the university in 1942 to join what was called at the time the Army Air Force.  His poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is widely anthologized, and most Americans will have read it in college (université in French, where collège is the American middle school).  A ball turret is a small sphere of metal and glass containing a heavy machine gun, some ammunition, and the smallest guy possible.  (No parachute.)  The ball turrets to which Jarrell refers were mounted on the underside of an aircraft.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The gunner was forced to assume a fetal position within the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall.

Other than a ball turret, the belly of a bomber is unprotected, and the tendency at the time was for fighter pilots to attack bombers either by diving down and firing from above–or by climbing and firing into the belly from below.

The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

English notes:

It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time–bear in mind that I’ve certainly read the poem tens of times since college–how much the lexical field (le champ lexical) of sleep is woven through it.  To wit:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

lexical field is a set of words that are grouped by subject.  For example, in the poem, we have sleep, dream, to wake, nightmare.  This is an odd kind of grouping in linguistics, where we tend to group words by structural characteristics (e.g. sleep and dream can both be either nouns or verbs, and their nouns and verbs have the same form; phosphorylate and phosphorylation are a verb and a noun that are related by the addition of -tion to the former) or by semantic characteristics (e.g. to nap is a way of sleeping, pail is a synonym of bucket).  Subject, the grouping characteristic of a lexical field, is thus an odd sort of concept from a linguistic perspective–to the extent that a language is a structure, it is difficult to see how subject would be an element of that structure, rather than, say, an element of the world that we use a language to talk about, or an element of how we talk about that world.  In my profession–natural language processing–the concept corresponding to lexical fields is the lexical chain, which can serve as an indicator of the structure of a text and creates a context for disambiguating and otherwise interpreting the words of that text.  See this paper by Jane Morris and my colleague Graeme Hirst for more information on the topic:

How I used lexical field in the post: It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time how much the lexical field of sleep is woven through it.

French notes

la tourelle: turret.  In a submarine, it is the conning tower.

la tourelle boule: ball turret.





The tip of your breast//has traced a new luck-line//in the hollow of my hand

The poetry of Jacques Prévert was one of the nicer discoveries of the past year for me.  Prévert did his military service around the time of the First World War (I’m not sure when–English-language and French-language Wikipedia give different dates).  During the Second World War, he protected the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma, who would set some of his poetry to music–and who joined the maquis (combatants in the Resistance) and was injured when he jumped on a mine during the liberation of Nice.

There are some themes that recur quite frequently in Prévert’s poetry.  They include Paris and the Seine; love; and war.  This being the very first day of National Poetry Month, I’ll give you one of his love poems, along with my attempt at a translation–we’ll get to some of the war poetry later.  The poem is Sanguine, published in 1951.

la pointe de ton sein
a tracé une nouvelle ligne de chance
dans le creux de ma main

the tip of your breast
has traced a new fate line
in the hollow of my hand 


La fermeture éclair a glissé sur tes reins
et tout l’orage heureux de ton corps amoureux
au beau milieu de l’ombre
a éclaté soudain
Et ta robe en tombant sur le parquet ciré
n’a pas fait plus de bruit
qu’une écorce d’orange tombant sur un tapis
Mais sous nos pieds
ses petits boutons de nacre craquaient comme des pépins
joli fruit
la pointe de ton sein
a tracé une nouvelle ligne de chance
dans le creux de ma main
joli fruit
Soleil de nuit.

The zipper slid down your lower back
and all of the happy storm of your loving body
right in the midst of the shadows
suddenly burst out
And falling on the waxed floor, your dress
made no more noise
than an orange peel falling on a rug
But beneath our feet
its little pearl buttons crackled like seeds
Blood orange
beautiful fruit
the tip of your breast
has traced a new fate line
in the hollow of my hand
Blood orange
beautiful fruit
night sun.

A number of Prévert’s poems have been set to music.  Here’s Yves Montand singing Sanguine:


…and here’s a guy with an odd accent–probably no odder than mine, me being, like him, an American–reading it:

French notes

la chiromansie : palmistry.  The chi is pronounced ki.  How would one know that, other than by looking it up (I had to)?  I don’t know–the pronunciation of chi usually baffles me.

la fermeture éclair: zipper, except when you’re talking about the zipper on a pair of pants, which is la braguette, as I learned the hard way in a café on rue des Écoles one day–a story for another time, perhaps.

A question (I’m lookin’ at you, Phil dAnge, and I have a poem for you later this month): why is the feminine form of éclair written without a final e?  Looks like clair to me, whose feminine is claire. 

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