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Wordsback

06/03/2014

Or should that be worseback? Doesn’t really matter, as it’s a phonetic ‘translation’ of the French word verlan, which in turn is a ‘translation’ of l’envers, meaning backwards. L’envers is more or less pronounced ‘lon-vair’ and verlan more or less ‘vair-lon’. And that’s how the verlan system of slang works – you divide words into syllables and then put them back to front. So wordsback is backwards backwards.

All this may sound like schoolboy slang. For instance, a British schoolmate of mine who I’m fairly sure was called Peter Robinson invented his own secret tongue, saying things like ib for I’m back (from the initials of the two words). No-one understood until he explained what he was doing, and that of course was the whole point – he had his own private code, and everyone else was supposed to be impressed. And we were, if only because Peter was a gifted nutcase in all kinds of other ways. One of his tricks, at the age of fourteen or thereabouts, was to mix up advertising slogans for such incongruous products as charcuterie and toilet paper: Drings pork sausages: soft… strong… absorbent… (Peter, if you’re still around to read this fifty years down the line, I was one of your many fans). Always wondered if he went into advertising, or films.

But Peter’s ib code didn’t go anywhere. No-one else learned it, or could possibly learn it, let alone speak it to anyone and expect to be understood. He himself probably didn’t invent more than a handful of words, and perhaps even forgot them later on.

French verlan is something else, and as far as I know it has no equivalent in English. It began many decades ago as a kind of underworld code or thieves’ cant, but has since become a more general slang that is even heard in TV detective series, from the cops as well as the robbers, and is clearly assumed to be widely understood.

When learning French as a teenager and university student, I discovered that the colloquial words for man and woman (often with sexual overtones) were mec and nana rather than homme and femme respectively. But in verlan they’re keum and meuf, words regularly heard in French TV series such as P. J. (= Police judiciaire), which deals with the sharp end of police work.

Keum is simply mec turned on its head (mec => m’c <=> c’m => keum), and meuf is the same thing done to femme (femme => f’m <=> m’f => meuf). When this reversal produces groups of sounds that don’t sound right in French, usually at the end of words, any inconvenient letters are simply dropped. The classic example is the word for copflic => fl’c <=> c’fl => c’f => keuf. In P. J. the cops are called les keufs at least as often as les flics, even by other keufs.

In short, verlan has become part and parcel of the French language. Not that it has altered French grammar or sentence structure; but verlan versions of all kinds of everyday words are readily understood, used and invented. A classic example is Renaud’s song title Laisse béton, based on the standard phrase Laisse tomber (literally ‘let it fall’, and so ‘forget it’, ‘who cares?’, ‘give us a break’). The inverted two syllables of tom-ber rhyme perfectly with those of bé-ton (concrete).

Verlan has even made it into Dutch – but clearly by mistake. A Dutch company has marketed a ready-made clarified-butter product called beur culinair, a (deliberate?) misspelling of the French words beurre culinaire (‘culinary butter’, whatever that’s supposed to mean – it doesn’t seem to exist in French). Unfortunately, beur has a meaning of its own which it seems no-one bothered to check: it’s verlan for arabe (the r and the b are reversed, with the vowels fudged into the usual blurred eu sound), and is slang for French-born people of Arab descent. There are ruder French words for Arabs, but a product called beur culinair would surely not sell well in France. Yet another case of Dutch companies playing around with other people’s languages and ending up with culinary butter on their faces. But I guess things could have been even worse, for the company might have slimmed the name down even further and called the stuff beur cul. Since cul is a vulgar French word for the backside, this would be rather like trying to market wallaby-milk yoghurt in Britain under the name woggurt.

Which of course brings us to the ever-entertaining topic of embarrassing brand names and slogans, from the Iranian household detergent Barf (برف‎, Farsi for ‘snow’) to Italian Switzerland’s public transport system FART (Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi – almost sounds like the name of an aria once you spell it out) and the British furniture manufacturer Sofa King’s claim that its prices were ‘Sofa King low’. Sadly, it seems that one got banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, which had to go through the performance of justifying its decision in writing, with all but the key letter of the offending word asterisked out. Sofa King said in its defence that it ‘did not believe the slogan caused serious or widespread offence’. Personally I think it’s a scream, and so, I suspect, did the ASA.

But there are quite enough blogs and websites on that subject already – just google ‘silly brand names’ and take your pick.

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