the best of words, the worst of words: dégueulasse & râler

Finally, the last of the three French party-goers:


Emmanuel is a sound recordist by day / artist by disposition. He has a bunch of strange and interesting side projects including a festival of boring films and a psychological danger meter. The intrigue of both were heightened by my inability to fully comprehend them in French – but I liked it that way so I didn’t ask for more details in English.

As is to be expected from a man with various hard-to-describe creative endeavors, Emmanuel’s picks for his best and worst words were similarly abstract and esoteric. He cycled through at least three worst words before settling on his absolute worst worst word. One of them was indifférence, which I found hilariously befitting of an artiste. His favorite word was also chosen with poetic logic. Dégueulasse: it’s not a nice word at all, but that’s part of the reason he likes it.

[Spoiler alert – if you don’t want to know how “Breathless” ends skip the next two paragraphs.]

Emmanuel explained (I think – it was not only that the French was slightly beyond my grasp but that the reasoning was, too): Dégueulasse is a crass word that you wouldn’t really say in polite company. In Godard’s first feature film, “À Bout de Souffle” / “Breathless,” the main character, a petty criminal played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, gets killed by the cops after being betrayed by his love, American ingenue Jean Seberg. As he lays dying he looks up at her and says, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse,” and it’s unclear what she’s feeling but it’s clear she’s feeling something very strongly. Then she asks one of the cops, “Qu’est-ce que c’est, dégueulasse?” but it comes out more like, “Qu’est-ce que c’est, deglasse?” It’s the first time she’s heard the word and she has no idea what it means. And then the movie ends. Honestly, I have always been perplexed by this. I know this last scene has deep meaning but I can’t put my finger on it, which makes me feel dumb and in turn, resentful of feeling dumb. I love “Breathless,” but man do I wish that the ending struck a chord with me in any way, shape or form.

Well, it struck a chord with Emmanuel. He thought that this ugly French almost-curse word, when it came out of Jean Seberg’s mouth in such an alien, foreign fashion, was given a new significance. The beauty of the word and the charm and possibilities of the language were revealed. Which I find amusing because to me the word sounds deeply hideous in that horrid American accent. Anyway…

Now for Emmanuel’s least favorite word. It’s not mignon, indifférence, or metastase, though those are three options he seriously considered before settling on:


Râler – to whine or moan.

Why? Not entirely sure but it has something to do with the fact that while complaining (se plaindre) carries an agenda and implies that something gets done as a result, râler has no orderly purpose and, like its cousin geindre, is simply moaning sadly to make one’s objections known but to no apparent end. Emmanuel seems to think that the French love to râle about everything, good, bad or indifferent.

There might also be something about the r sound that Emmanuel finds grating but I’m not entirely sure. That part of the explanation was beyond my pay grade. 🙂

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