Perfumed Letters

Reading the scent trail of fragrance and words

What Are Words Worth?

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Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle (Larousse)
Catching up on the Oscar news this morning, I discovered kerfluffle flutter in the aftermath of Jean Dujardin’s Best Actor acceptance speech (video here).Yes, the “putain!” in his French riff was unexpected. It’s not a word for polite company, not a word that will make your mother proud. But “the French equivalent of the F-bomb?” Not quite.
What does this have to do with perfume? Nothing. But it brings to mind a different, more troubling French word that’s had the perfume-world buzzing with debates inevitably stuck, wheels spinning, in the mud of translation.
Many perfume lovers in the US were shocked to learn that Jean-Paul Guerlain could face a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a 22,500 euro fine if convicted of making racial insults during a 2010 interview on national television. It seems unlikely that he would be issued such a harsh sentenceJohn Galliano was handed only a suspended fine when found guilty of hate speech just last year. To clarify, the problem is using racist language in a public forum. No one is on trial for being a racist. The difference may sound trivial—but think about it.
The free speech/hate speech continuum has the blogs ablaze. But more than that, people are talking about the word nègre. Is the word deeply insulting or simply outdated? I am writing today, not to defend or condemn an individual, and not to pit French penal code against the American First Amendment. Instead, I want to focus on words, and to shed light on how one word could trigger such an outcry.
Of course it doesn’t boil down to an isolated word. Translation is a complex and imprecise art because there is no such thing as a “pure” word, a collection of letters conveying one, unadulterated meaning. Words are remodeled, recycled and redefined. Words carry baggage and leave a trail of footprints from the times and places they have known. Words wear sticky layers of association, connotation, and context–personal, historical, cultural.
Americans learning French are often shocked to find that the crude verb baiser (comparable to the f-word), also functions as a perfectly polite noun: un baiser (a kiss). We (Americans) can’t “hear” our own f-word diluted of its punch in that way. And I won’t launch into a digression on the history and usage of the aforementioned putain.
The n-word in English exemplifies both the importance of context (completely off limits to most–but not all–speakers in most–but not all–circumstances), and the limits of translation. Find an approximate word match, explain the usage, but the instant sting, the visceral reaction, will be lost in translation.
The  Petit Robert dictionary classifies nègre an outdated and pejorative word used (especially in the 18th and 19th centuries) to refer to slaves and inhabitants of various tropical lands and French colonies, notably the Caribbean.  The locution travailler comme (to work like) un nègre, derives from this cultural context. You may have heard the American version as well. During current productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the air becomes thick with discomfort as Big Daddy utters that very sentence–featuring the n-word–in English. 
As if this weren’t complicated enough already for the Anglophone ear, the word nègre pops up in unexpected contexts. Although the anglicized écrivain fantôme has gained some traction, nègre still means ghostwriter. And in addition to the revisionist tête (de) choco, you can still find tête- de-nègre desserts in French pâtisseries.
In 1935, Martinican poet/politician/activist Aimé Césaire (1913-2008) reclaimed and reshaped the word nègre, embedding the memory of a painful legacy in his expression of empowerment and solidarity, negritude. His 2005 essay “Nègre je suis, nègre je resterai” (published in English as “A Negro I am, a Negro I will always be”) has been quoted in  protests and responses to the Guerlain incident. 
So what does travialler comme un nègre mean in the 21st century? Obviously, French speakers have not reached a consensus. Some call it a shameful slur. Others see it as an innocent linguistic relic, like dead metaphors that have shed their literal meanings:  He kicked the bucket; The table has six legs; I ploughed through that novel. They argue that travailler comme un nègre no longer conjures up the image of slaves or exploited laborers working in the colonies. However, the locution’s literal origins were definitively resuscitated in the embellishment:  Je ne sais pas si les nègres ont toujours tellement travaillé, mais enfin…(Well, I don’t know if the nègres [the negroes/the slaves] always worked that much….). Cringe.
The great nez represent more than a luxury industry to perfume-lovers like me. They are respected artists and cultural icons. It is painful to watch that interview. It is painful to see a retired perfumer, on crutches, punctuating a brilliant career with an apology for words he certainly wishes he could take back. It is painful to know that a thirty-second gaffe (his, yours, mine) can be reproduced ad infinitum in the timeless space of the digital now.
From my perspective (over fifty, no stranger to existential angst, and hyper aware of time’s tyranny over me and my loved ones), it is also painful to hear the defense:  “I am from another generation.” Does this mean that we shut off our social radar at a certain age, then reactivate it decades later, blinking in Rip-Van-Winkle-like wonder at a changed world?  I hope not. Presumably, we evolve and develop a bit of consciousness along the way. If not, at exactly what age should we hit the sleep button? When is the right time to fossilize our thinking? At twenty? Thirty? Forty? Fifty? Sixty? Of course medical or social complications can limit interaction and dampen awareness. But it’s not easy to excuse public figures, the privileged, the worldly, the well heeled and the well traveled, for having lived in the shelter of frozen time and space.
Finally, it is painful to read well-meaning incitements to leave the poor old man alone, or to accept that old people just say stupid things. Between patronizing and being patronized, between representing the powers that be and being granted childlike powerlessness, is there no middle ground once we reach a certain age? At what age will I earn my first indulgent smile and pat on the head for being unenlightened?
I hope that I will not wake up one day up to discover that I’ve cultivated my own petrified forest of perspectives and turns of phrase. But if I do, I wonder: will someone respect me enough, will someone value the intellect, the dignity, and, yes, the future of an old woman enough, to gently pull me aside and fill me in, before it’s too late?

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