Friday, January 20, 2012

French vocabulary no. 4: the boonies

In English you’d say Alba was in the boonies.

In French you might say it was paumé. Paumé comes from the word for "palm"
and it took a while for it to mean what it does today:
in 1290 (around when our hamlet first appears on the historical record)
it meant laying your hand on the bible to swear to something;
by 1649 (which is probably around when the foundations of our house were laid)
I guess people were getting a little vehement about their swears
and paumé came to mean slapping.
Two centuries later and slapping had become grabbing -
in 1815 you could "palm" (catch) someone red-handed.
But in 1489, thanks to François Villon
(who was probably keenly aware
of how slippery swearing can be)
"paumé" also came to mean "lost."

Paumé is not the only way we have of saying we live in the boonies.

French has lots of words for little villages like ours, perhaps because there are so many of them.
Patelin, which makes a green and orange sound in the mouth, jolly and plump,
is the most affectionate.
Bled, which was brought back to France by colonial troops stationed in North Africa,
is usually paired with paumé to mean a place in the middle of nowhere,
though mon bled can also be a way of saying “back home.”
Perpète (from perpetuity) was once slang for a life sentence,
but it bled (sorry, no pun intended)
over into spatial infinity,
so when someone lives in perpète
you know it will take a while to get to their house.

And from there we come to whole collection of made-up places that sound far off when you roll them off your tongue: going to Perpète-les-Oies or Pétaouchnok means going to a place that is inconveniently far from everything.

Once, my husband and I stopped to buy a postcard in the tiny village of
Sospel (pictured bottom right), which sits perched on a mountainside
on a twisty, windy road
battered by wind and snow
in the middle, of, well, nowhere.
"Where do you come from?" asked the lady selling the postcards.
"Alba la Romaine," we told her.
"My god," she cried. "I've been there. How can you stand to live in such an isolated place?"

Which goes to show that like everything else,
boonies are in the eye of the beholder.


1 comment:

Rick said...

Perpète-la-Romaine seems like the perfect spot for an unsophisticated Appalachian hillbilly like you to live.