Questions for . . . Alice Becker-Ho

In her preceding works, [Alice Becker-Ho] highlighted two important origins of argot: Romany -- the language of the Gypsies -- and Yiddish. Her new work, Du jargon: heritier en bastardie[1] explores a third: feudal origins. Also read: The Princes of Jargon.[2]

You at first approached argot through Romany. . . .

Yes, there was a catch [declic] concerning the word "prince," the origin of which is Romany: I wanted to understand. In the 15th century, the arrival of the Gypsies in Europe and France corresponded to the emergence of an argot of malefactors. One has often claimed that argot came from patois.[3] This would have been totally ineffective in an epoch in which the national language was still poorly defined, in which patois co-habited and were comprehensible by a large number of speakers. For the outlaws, argot was a war-like barrier, understood by them but which had to remain totally unintelligible to the police and potential victims. This language was abundantly drawn from the language spoken by the Gypsies, who were the "foreign element" par excellence and for whom words had always been a defensive weapon. For example, take becher -- to have a scornful attitude -- which produced becheur [detractor, critic]; it came from the Romnany word besh, which means "to be firmly established, installed, to sit in state [be enthroned]." Chicaner [to pick a fight], which then produced se chiquer [to chew], from the Romany tchingar -- brawl.

In the third volume, you demonstrate that at the very heart of argot there exists a category of words derived from feudalism and chivalry. . . .

Yes, but that has never been taken into account by dictionaries of argot. Quite simply because it was a question of words in the clear, not dressed up, words that one used every day. Over the course of the centuries, the words derived from chivalry became emptied of their substance. The milieu [of malefactors] continued to use them in their original meanings. For example, take the word ami [friend]. Up to the 11th Century, friend designated a parent, by blood or by alliance. In the argot of the malefactors, the name friend still corresponded with frere [brother]. To present someone in these terms engaged [them] until death. Blood vengeance could extend to the ensemble of the same "family."

Why were the "dangerous classes" particularly attracted to this vocabulary?

Because they shared the same values, those of the warrior. Feudal society was founded on man-to-man relations, on hierarchical values and codes of honor that one found in the milieu up to the 1950s. These feudal terms are, moreover, the most utilized in the milieu. They are also the most estimable, the strongest, those that permit interested parties to recognize each other, those that imply respect. "Friend" belong to it, but also "man" and "sword." In heraldry, the sword was the emblem of nobility, courage, loyalty and victory. In argot, to say of a man that he is "a sword" is to affirm that he is trustworthy, esteemed and courageous.

The route of the word "affranchi" [emancipated] is equally interesting. . . .

The Frankish State was composed of two categories of men: free men or francs and slaves. With the instauration of manumission -- the legal procedure of emancipation -- the former slave, thus emancipated, could only survive by finding the support of a defender or a powerful person, to whom he had to be loyal. In the same way, the free man, in argot, is he who refuses to be a slave, and chooses to engage himself freely in another society, in which he accepts the rules in exchange for the protection that is accorded. The concordance with the original feudal term is obvious.

[1] Jargon: Heir of Bastardy (Gallimard 2002).

[2] Les Princes du Jargon (Gallimard, 1990), translated as The Princes of Jargon by John McHale (Edwin Mellen Press, 2004). (Note added 18 January 2008: we have taken it upon ourselves to translate and post the Supplement to this book.) The second volume in this trilogy was L'Essence du Jargon (Gallimard, 1994).

[3] A plural noun, not singular, as in English.

(Interview conducted by Alexie Lorca. Published on-line by Lire, March 2002. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! July 2007. Footnotes by the translator.)

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