French Gay Language [IV]
Traditionally the French language has enjoyed a special position owing to its power of cultural radiation. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century French was the language of diplomacy and culture generally. Until recent times, many held that it was necessary to know two languages; one’s own and French. This prestige facilitated the spread of French lexical items into other Western European languages, including sexual terms.
Since the seventeenth century, the French language has been subjected to centralizing and normalizing institutions, first and foremost the Acadėmie Française. This language policy has preserved the perceived purity of the language. It has also engendered a popular revolt, an ever-growing popular or demotic trend, which ignores many of the official taboos. Today, even educated French people must be diglossic, proficient not only in standard French and also in its popular rival. On may contrast English where the standard language is a kind of loose baggy monster, with all sorts of variants—US, Australian, Indian, Caribbean and so forth—which are still within the pale. Nonstandard forms, such as cockney and Ebonics, are not in the position of being rivals. So this binary or diglossic situation makes it harder for a term to migrate from one form of the language to the other. Harder, but not impossible, and the challenge has energized many clever users. The linguistic innovations of the major novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline rest in large measure on his skill in creating a hybrid, violating this separation. The many popular expressions he introduces into his basically standard French novels are not only signs of linguistic impropriety, but also an indication of transgressional views seemingly derived from the popular social strata from which the highly educated author collected them.
The preferred device for coining new words in standard French is to use combining forms derived from Greek and Latin; thus, olduc for pipeline from Latin roots meaning “oil” and “lead.” That is why “homosexuel(le),” though coined in Central Europe, easily into made its way.
While official French circles have shown some tendencies to linguistic isolation, the power of the language, or portions of it, to spread abroad has been extraordinary. This seeming paradox has been addressed by a kind of asymmetry principle: lots of exports, few imports. In recent decades as English has become the international language it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the old barriers.
Historically, French has contributed most to English, so that today borrowings from French (some ultimately of Latin origin) outnumber the Anglo-Saxon lexical stock. Some say that as a result English has become a romance language. Since the grammatical structure is still Germanic, that would be an exaggeration. Still, as documented (e.g. by Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language), the amount of cross-channel importation has been extraordinary, far surpassing, in all likelihood, the number of Arabic and Persian words that made their way into Turkish. The source of these massive incursions into English is easy to pinpoint. It was the Norman Conquest of 1066, which placed French speakers at the commanding heights of English society. In this way there was a kind of Francophone take-over, not unlike the way that English has been functioning in India. It was as if French “raped” English. During the high Middle Ages French became the standard language of English administration, diplomacy, and the law. Sodomie became “sodomy” and bougre readily converted to “bugger.” Today, English speakers are notorious for their poor command of French. All the same, the linguistic imprint remains.
Beginning in the eighteenth century Paris acquired the reputation (only recently dissipated) of being the capital of erotic stimulation. Pornography was available in various languages. The writer recalls buying a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in Paris in 1958, when it was almost impossible to obtain in the US and Britain.
Medieval theology and the Bible are at the heart of the emerging concepts of homosexuality. This is a heritage (if so it may be termed) that French shares with the other leading tongues of Western Europe. The linchpin of these concepts is the term sodomie, a noun originally formed in Medieval Latin and generalizing from the wicked City of the Plain in Genesis. Medieval usage (inherited in the early modern era) distinguished both an inclusive and a narrow sense of sodomy. In the first, broad usage sodomy could be any sexual act between two people that was not capable of initiating reproduction. There were three types of activity: with the wrong vessel (anal and oral sex), with the wrong gender (homosexuality), and with the wrong species (bestiality). In the narrow sense, which increasingly prevailed, sodomie referred to anal sex, possibly heterosexual, but more commonly homosexual.
Also, influential was the concept of contre nature, stemming from Romans 1:26-27. Placed in the philosophical setting of the natural law, this usage tended to confirm the view that homosexual conduct is unnatural.
Same-sex behavior was also associated with contemporary heresies. The penalty for sodomy and heresy was the same—burning at the stake. The Albigensian dualists were thought (falsely for the most part) to be particularly given to same-sex sin. As the Albigensian roots were traced to Bulgaria, the disparaging term bougre came into wide use. At first the word combined the ideas of heresy and same-sex behavior; eventually, only the latter was meant.
Claude Courouve has shown that during the sixteeenth century French observers formulated an early version of the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual, though without using those terms. The distinction was expressed by amour des garçons, love of boys, as contrasted with amour des femmes, love directed towards women. Somewhat later this distinction took a more graphic form, the culistes versus the conistes. That is, those who were attracted to the buttocks (of their own sex) versus those who were attracted to the vagina.
The expression amour des garçons places the emphasis on age differentiation. The attractions of the youthful male also came to the fore in the expression mignon (formerly simply a favorite, or “minion,” but beginning in the reign of Henri III a male sexual object. Revived from classical antiquity, the word catamite, suggests a somewhat younger partner. Also classical are the eponymic Ganymede, after Zeus’ favorite, and Giton, from Petronius’ Satyricon. The term bardache derives ultimately from a Persian term for “slave” (via Arabic). The generic term pédérastie, or love of youthful males, also became prominent. Later this last term became more general, being basically equivalent to “homosexual. This shift in sense is evident in the clipped form pédé, found in the nineteeenth century and still widely used in a disparaging sense.
The older, roistering homosexual was also recognized, and designated by the term bougre, which shed much of its association with heresy. Some authors, such as François Rabelais, observe a reciprocal pairing, coupling the aggressive bougre with the passive, receptive bardache.
Turning now to women’s terms, tribade is from ancient Greek. A problem arises with sapphique, which for a long time meant simply a prosodic measure. One thing most people “knew” (until the early or middle nineteenth century about Sappho is that she was heterosexually in love with Phaon and committed suicide because of it. The term Sapphiste, in the sense of a female same-sexer, was a fairly uncommon (that is, a learned or “arch” term) in French until the twentieth century. Lesbienne is also problematic, since until the middle of nineteenth century it could simply mean a “loose” woman, not necessarily a female homosexual
As in other countries there was a tendency to ascribe the predilection for same-sex behavior to other nations. Not being native to France, it was suggested, it must be an import. Because of the influence of Italy over France at this time that country seemed to be a logical place to pinpoint the origins of the conduct. Hence the imprecation: “la France devenue italienne!” Pierre de Brantôme referred to lesbian relations in a borrowed Italian phrase as donna con donna, woman with woman, Later, the source of the propensity was shifted to the Middle East (moeurs levantines) or to Germany (vice allemand).
Hermaphrodite sometimes served as a code word for homosexual, as in the satire of Henri III’s court, L’Isle des hermaphrodites (1605).
The eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of three somewhat shadowy groups. The members of the first group, the ordre de la manchette (order of the cuffs, an expression from 1726) were distinguished by their dress. The second were the Ebugors (an anagram of bougre, 1733). The most substantial of the three was the all-female Société des Anandrynes, which flourished in the years immediately prior to the Revolution.
The Paris police kept those suspected of sodomy under close surveillance; they were usually known as the infâmes (or infamous ones). Classical influences continued, as seen in amour socratique and péché philosophique. Dealers in banned erotic literature sometimes referred to their wares euphemistically as “philosophical books.” The bisexual Marquis de Sade coined a useful word antiphysique to replace the idea of contre nature. Among the learned the eighteenth century witnessed an almost universal appeal to the norms of Nature. It was commonly assumed that same-sex conduct was unnatural. But not be everyone. Towards the end of the century a pamphlet defending homosexual conduct proclaimed “Tous les goûts sont de la nature”—all tastes are natural.
For most of its history argot has been an important factor is spoken French. Argot can be traced back to the thirteenth century. However, it truly came into its own in the nineteenth century, when a number of significant dictionaries covering the realm appeared.
By way of a general definition, argot is a register of language or a way of speaking specific to a social group—a sociolect in short. It typically starts with a desire to encrypt messages, concealing their meaning from outsiders. Use of argot serves as a badge of identity, allowing the members of the group to recognize one another and to forge bonds of social solidarity. Argot is not limited to France, but is found for example in England in Polari and Cockney slang. Argot differs from ordinary slang because of its origins in a desire to function as a special way of speaking for certain groups.
The vocabulary of argot tends to concentrate on certain themes—sex, violence, crimes, and intoxication. In this way it constitutes a massive challenge to the norms of respectable, bourgeois society.
There is not just one argot, but many, differentiated by time and place. Nonetheless the argot of Paris enjoys a special status. Today, the housing projects ringing French cities have developed their own argots. All these ways of speaking show a rapid turnover of expressions, increasing the opacity to outsiders.
The origin of many argot words is hard to determine. Others result from a change of meaning. There are some well-established procedures, however. One is clipping. Thus pédé (first recorded in 1832) is a shortened form of pédéraste. Through suffixation this in turn gave rise to pédale and pédoque. In this chain, there is first subtraction, then addition.
Other argot terms for male homosexual are tante (auntie), tapette (a synonym), and folle (crazy queen). A lesbian could be designated at gouine or gousse. During the first half of the twentieth century urinals were almost ubiquitous in French cities. Resorted to as “tea rooms” for sexual purposes, they were called tasses.
It has been said that the two creative poles of language innovation are the common people and the savants. Argot illustrates the first tendency. Scholars, scientists, and medical experts represent the second. Coming just a little later after the profusion of argot was an infusion of learned terms from abroad. In most cases these were invented in the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet resistance to foreign creations delayed their entry into French. Thus K. M. Kertbeny sent homosexual out into the world from Central Europe in 1869, the word did not make its way into French until 1891 (homosexuel), and then in the translation of a German work. In 1893 another translation supplied heterosexuel. The Italian savant Arrigo Tamassia created inversione in 1878; the French equivalent appeared in 1882. Uranismus (cf. also Urning) was created by the German independent scholar K. H. Ulrichs in the 1860s. Uranisme only began to circulate in France in the 1890s. A native French term unisexuelle seems to have been coined by the eccentric anarchist Charles Fourier, ca. 1840. A recent effort to revive it has not met with success.
Along with homosexuel and heterosexuel went bisexuel. This has led to a number of more or less humorous coinages, such as a voile et a vapeur (under sail and steam, a nautical expression) and the ineffable jazz-tango.
In the period immediately after World War II the leading French monthly was called Arcadie. The term arcadien referred to a member of this circle, and more generally to male homosexuals.
Defying the strictures of the Académie Française, contemporary French has shown great creativity. Argot grew apace. Building on earlier foundations in the nineteenth century, this demotic variant of standard French has now permeated the spoken language at almost all levels.
Another common feature affecting contemporary French words is clipping. Linguists term this procedure by two words: apocape and apheresis, excision of a fore part or latter part of a word, respectively. Thus restau is common for restaurant, manif for manifestation, zique for musique, and so forth. We have already encountered pédé, the clipped form of pédéraste.
In the French language Verlan is the inversion of sounds in a word common in popular speech and youth language. It draws on a long French tradition of permutating syllables of words to create slang words. The name verlan is itself an example: verlan = lanver = l'envers (meaning the inverse, or backwards).
The basic principle of verlan is that in a word or syllable the two most prominent consonants are retained, but appear in reverse order, usually separated by an “uh” sound (represented in French by the digraph eu). In this way femme and mec (the latter argot) become meuf and keum, respectively. Some words may have their syllables inverted twice; for example, femme > meuf > feume. A well-known example, adopted by North African immigrants themselves, is Beur (Arabe).
Verlan is primarily a spoken patois passed down orally, so that there is no standardized spelling. It is not so much a language, but a means of highlighting certain words. The fact that many verlan words refer either to sex or drugs attests its original purpose: to keep the communication secret from institutions of social control. No one would rely only on verlan while talking. Verlan words and expressions are typically mixed inside a more general argotic language. Specifically gay words seem to be uncommon, but note deup (from pédé). Individual gays are of course free to make up their own versions (nonce coinages).
Among current terms in (more are less) regular spoken French, the following may be noted. Goudon and gougnotte both mean lesbian. Crevette or glabre is a smooth-bodied young man, who may be just coming out. A Cyrille is a young man whose friends recognize him as gay, but who hasn’t realized it yet. A burly, older man, usually bearded, is a santa or nounours. If he is generous to young men with money and gifts, he is a Papa gãteau, sugar daddy. An Eddy is a tough homophobe, possibly violent. Turlute is fellatio, while partouze is an orgy. A triaude is a gay gathering place.
Many influences have contributed to the breakdown of traditional French linguistic purism. Since the English-speaking world has been so influential in the gay movement and in popular culture (music, movies, TV), it has been hard to stem this tide. This means that much of the influence flows into demotic French, where such terms as “cool” (approbation for a particular style of self-presentation) and “baskets” (sneakers) have taken root.
Conveyed by waves of popular culture, as well as business usage and now the Internet, the appeal of the foreign interlopers was irresistible. This receptivity is particularly evident in the gay world in France, heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon models. In some cases it has been possible to find French substitutes, as placard for closet (“dans le placard,” “sortir du placard”) and fierté for (gay) pride. However, a long list of unmodified borrowings culminating in the 1990s shows the effect: coming out and outing, drag queen and drag king, butch/fem, bear, chub/chubby, and quicky all found in contexts that are otherwise completely French. Note the present-day gay, which forms a pair with gai, retaining the original meaning (ironically the original source of the English word). In French Canada, however, gai/gaie is preferred. The abbreviation LGBT has also been borrowed.
As with other modern languages, acronyms are proliferating. These include SIDA (an acronym reflecting the French term for AIDS) and PACS (Pacte civil de solidaritė, 1999), the French version of our civil unions (that is, all but marriage), a legal arrangement available to heterosexuals as well. Some usages found on the Internet are AVS (ãge, ville, sexe), SSR (sexe sans risque), and TBM (très bien membré; well-hung).
As elsewhere, neologisms, words made up out of whole cloth rarely survive. The French homolexis presents one prominent exception, for in 1978, the French writer Renaud Camus invented achrien/achrienne, a vaguely Greek sounding word for “gay.” “From this point onwards [he decreed] achrien and achrienne designate individuals sexually attracted to their own sex, and everything that pertains to them; henceforth one must substitute these words for their synonyms.” While it was perhaps utopian to expect that this word would effectively supersede the established ones (pédé, homosexuel, inverti and so forth), the neologism has been adopted by some student groups, such as Gage (Group Achrien des Grandes Ecoles).
REF. Claude Courouve, Vocabulaire de l’homosexualité masculine, Paris, 1985 (the author of this standard work has privately published (2006) an enlarged edition with many more citations, entitled Dictionnaire historique de l’homosexualité masculine.)