by Oliver

Sometimes I think about slang expressions and neologisms. Take, for example, the question “are you going to nuke it?” Out of context one might think it to have a different meaning but somehow it has become generally acceptable to say that you are going to “nuke” a food item when you are simply going to reheat it in the microwave. Yet, I hear it all the time and only recently have I thought about how silly it sounds. I won’t argue the convenience of saying “nuke” instead of “microwave” or “reheat” but I guess personally for me it seems odd.

When I first read the chapter entitled Wordplay in Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, I thought it was interesting to read of the different instances of wordplay in English. He explains that someone in the UK might come across a crossword clue of “a city in Czechoslovakia” and have to figure out that the city is Oslo (Czech-oslo-vakia). Also, the playfulness of palindromes means the phrase “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas” is read identically whether spelled backwards or forwards. By and large, I suppose the origin of wordplay isn’t as important as the ability for language to grow and be semantically pliable.

While living in Spain with a couple of french guys I learned a lot about French and slang expressions. Of course, I learned all the vulgarities (even though to my ears they sound too nice to be vulgar) but also some other interesting things about wordplay in French. One day I discovered my favourite phrase in French, ce type (meaning, roughly, this guy; pronounced sə ti:p), and asked what the equivalent phrase would be for this girl; they told me that it would be cette meuf (pronounced set: møf). The usage of meuf is highly colloquial and I found out that the word meuf was actually created by inverting the consonant sounds of the French word for woman: femme (pronounced fɑ:m). [Please do tell me if I’ve made mistakes with the phonetic spelling]

After talking with a friend (americaine) who has spent a considerable amount of time living in France, I found out that a lot of slang words in French are hard to figure out because the words are inverted versions of the originals. For her, the trickiness of inverted sounds and duality of meaning made learning slang slightly less intuitive. There is an article on Wikipedia that explains that this type of wordplay in French is known as verlan. In fact, the word verlan is, in itself, a play on words because if you invert verlan you get lanver (l’envers), which means the inverse in French.

The Wikipedia article explains how verlan is employed as well as some idea of what it would be like if we tried to do the same sort of thing in English. Take a look for yourself, it’s rather amusing.

It is also worth mentioning that Lunfardo, an argot originating in and around the Rioplatense regions of Argentina and Uruguay during the 19th century, is similar to verlan in the sense that it reverses the syllables of words to form new words and expressions. Thus, tango is also known as gotán. There are others found in its Wikipedia article. I personally enjoy feca con chele for café con leche.

Also, for anyone who has taken a look at the url of this blog and wondered what keyornew is supposed to mean, I’ll only say that it is the name of a song on Mathieu Boogaerts’ album Michel. I bought the record, liked the song, and then realised that it is, in fact, the name of an american city, put in verlan. Can you figure it out?