C’est marron! It’s a chestnut! It’s cool! It’s funny!
Author’s note: My friend recently told me that I’ve been hearing this phrase wrong for years, and it’s actually c’est marrant!, which makes a lot more sense. But my interpretation is funnier so we will just leave the post as-is. Oh, language learning.
Aubergine, the French, British and German term for eggplant, is one of my favorite French words; vachement, an adverb for “really” (as in “vachement good”), but literally meaning cow-ly, is a French word that makes me cringe in disgust. The most obvious explanation for this preference is that I love eggplant and I usually dislike beef. Both terms, oddly, remind me of old women; aubergine has a traditional ring about it, whereas vachement, well, no comment. I have no logical right to love hearing a French person pronounce aubergine (it doesn’t quite have the same ring in British English or German) and almost puke at the mention of vachement, but I do, and will likely continue to do so, just as I will continue to giggle at the phrase “c’est marron” for the pure reason that it makes no sense at all. What is it about words that gets us going?
When I was little, I used to dry-heave at the sight of beet purple. As in, once I had to run out of an Old Navy and into the fresh air after seeing a rack of beet purple-colored t-shirts. I’ve since grown out of this affliction and now eat and wear the color on a daily basis. Does our affection and hatred for words work the same way? Is there a 10-year cycle for word preferences, as there is on the food palette? In ten years, will I be describing things as “cow-ly great”? And what of words in foreign languages that we do not understand? Basically any Italian monologue will hypnotize me, and anything German makes me want to steal across the border and finally memorize declination. These preferences can have nothing to do with word meaning (cow-ly versus eggplant), as I do not understand the words themselves. Then, it must be the sound of the words, or the way they are said, or…something.
Actually, there aren’t many studies out there that trace word preference to any defined reasoning. There are words that commonly show up on love and hate lists, like the words “love” and “hate” themselves, but the lists lack real scientific explanation, as there are always outliers and peculiar quirks. David Foster Wallace has a personal affection for the phrase “moist loincloth”, but there are entire cults out there dedicated to hating the word “moist”. I myself do not love or hate this particular word, though when it is used in conjunction with “loincloth”, I do cringe a bit. I love the French word for moist, “moelleux”, but not the Spanish term “húmedo”, literally meaning humid; the idea of eating a dripping, cloud-like cake disgusts me a little. “Moelleux”, I find, also rolls off the tongue in a much nicer way than either “moist” or “húmedo”, but that is, of course, just personal preference.
“Je pète dans votre direction générale”, an outdated French insult that is parodied in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the Frenchman’s line “I fart in your general direction,” is not quite as funny to me in the original French. My students who were forced to watch the film, it being one of the few movies on YouTube with comprehensible French subtitles, did not find the line funny at all (even with the legible subtitles.) For me, the odd English insult never gets old, even after having watched the scene with at least 12 classes over the past week. Perhaps I like the insult because it takes me slightly off guard; it’s a surprise. Then again, “vachement” is a bit odd, too, and I hope to never hear the word again.
I apologize, then, for developing such a lengthy, rambling argument that draws no conclusion (I hate the word “draw”, which reminds me of “drawers”, a word that I can’t properly pronounce and that hints at underwear.) The only satisfaction I can give you for having read this entire post is the following sketch that my students, who generally did not enjoy Monty Python, may not appreciate, but that the Anglophones out there who feel strongly about word choice might. It’s a chestnut if I ever saw one.