Ritual Language

posted 13 June 2005

Mary-Claire's office, where I sit, is across the hall from the room where the color printers are located, so we get a lot of foot traffic. People all over the building come by to pick up (or not, as often happens) their print jobs. Because the printers haven't been working very well lately, someone who hadn't already read a book on the subject of rude French language could learn some very interesting vocabulary.

Being a good little linguist (as opposed to good at linguistics, which I never was, particularly), I've paid attention to what I hear, and I have learned the various ritual phrases that one must speak upon entering the sacred printer room.

The most frequent, spoken when the printer does nothing at all, is "M**de, il n'est pas sorti!" ("[Expletive deleted], it didn't come out!")

Second, spoken when the printer in fact prints something, is "O-o-o-oh, la LA!" ("Drat, this isn't right! Why is it upside down/backwards/gibberish/blank?"). It is a myth that the French say "Oooh, la la," but they say "Oh, la la" all the time, men and women, old and young, most often to express surprised disapproval. The "oh" is usually drawn out, and the whole phrase is spoken in a special, low, growly voice, coming out almost "O-o-o-oh, law law," and the stress is on the last "law." A little old lady might say it if someone gunned a motor scooter just outside the church, and a banker in a three-piece suit might say it on learning that a junior colleague had foolishly beaten his boss at golf. It can also express surprised awe and was often shouted by the onlookers at the lunch-time pingpong game in Villefranche when someone hit a particularly vicious drive. But I digress . . .

Variations include (a) "Mais où sont mes pages?" ("But where are my pages?"), (b) "Mais qu'est-ce que c'est que ça?" ("What the heck is this?"), (c) "Mais non, c'est pas vrais" ("Not again!"), and (d), sometimes shouted down the hallway, "Mais à qui donc sont ces pages" ("Whose dratted pages are these?"). Note the frequent use of "mais," which actually means "but"; it functions here to add emphasis and, together with tone of voice, to convey exasperation.

Marie-Claire had apparently long since tuned this stuff out and hadn't noticed until I pointed it out just how repetitive printer-room language is—with the result that now every time someone says one of the stock phrases, we both burst out laughing, usually to the great surprise of the printer victim.

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