On the first day of first grade, my mother could speak exactly one sentence in English: “My name is Vivian.”
My mother’s family was Louisiana French and her household communicated via the patois called Cajun French. In schools in the 1930s, however, it was believed that speaking English was necessary to get ahead. Speaking your ancestral language would hold you back in modern society. At my mother’s school, children who spoke Cajun French got their knuckles rapped with a ruler by the teacher. Louisiana French children learned to answer their teachers in English or not speak at all. The language wars are nothing new.
My mother learned English with fluency. The lesson from school that one must speak English to get ahead was taken to heart in our home and by most children of my generation. As I grew up, our family customs were rooted in the French tradition but we spoke English. I was not taught to speak Cajun French as a child, and I could never pick it up with any fluency as an adult. I know the Acadians’ stories, their history, their famous figures, their traditions, but I can’t fully share their unique language. This is one of the great regrets of my life.
In 1968, the Louisiana state legislature created the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. CODOFIL is empowered to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana for the cultural, economic and touristic benefit of the state.”
What follows is my small contribution to the any and all things necessary to promote the peculiar language of my ancestors.
About Cajun French
Cajun French, or Louisiana Regional French, is a patois of standard French (or Parisian French as it is called locally) with influences from Spanish, Native American, African, and other Creole languages.
An important thing to understand about how this bilingual community and culture utilizes two languages is to understand the demographics of the language today. Only elderly people speak solely in Cajun French. Most people speak English. There is much crossover, but English is the predominant language now. Just about everyone who speaks English sprinkles Cajun French or Parisian French expressions in their day to day speech.
Example: At a picnic, a character, Emelia, might flounce onto a lawn chair and say, “That gros bête, Louis, he spit a watermelon seed at me!”
There is no way to provide anything like a complete list, but these words/phrases are common—or were in my house. I have tried to break the lexicon below into broad categories, in no particular order:
Parents are Mama and Papa, or Maman or Papere, or Mere or Pere. Many Southern women call their fathers Daddy throughout their lives. I call my father Daddy.
Grandparents are Grandmere and Grandpere, or Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw, or any garbled word a baby learning to speak assigns to a grandparent. My grandmother was Grom, a version of Grandmere, and because she was the baby of the family (see le petit below) her nickname was Tit.
Aunts are Tante. Many names are shortened. I had an aunt named Euphrasie. (Trivia: In Les Miserables, the character Cosette’s real name was Euphrasie.) We called my Aunt Euphraise Tante Fraz. I had another aunt named Augustine. We called her Tante Tine.
Uncles are oncle, often mon oncle (my uncle) which is shorted to Nonc. I have an uncle named William, who was nicknamed “Yom” from the local pronunciation: will-yom. We grew up calling him Nonc Yom, which means “my uncle William.”
Many given names (first names) were French but English names became popular during the 20th century. There are limits, however. My grandmother wanted to name one of her sons Calvin, but the priest disapproved (see Calvinism) so he recorded “Clarence” on the birth certificate. He was called Calvin by the family anyway.
Many given names (first names) are inspired by places. My grandfather’s first name was Paris. I have aunts named Venice, Florence, Augustine. I also have a cousin named Hans, but his mother had married a sailor.
Women were sometimes called by their husband’s name. My grandmother was called “Mrs. John” by many people in town because my grandfather’s name was John. He was a businessman. People who worked for him called her “Mrs. John.”
Godparents are Nenaine and Parrain. A godmother is also called “Nanny” but that’s a nickname and no connection to Mary Poppins.
“T” before a name has two meaningss. A “T” preface means little, a short version of the French word for small—petit/petite. La petite might mean the youngest in a family or the smallest—the baby or the runt. It is also a form of “junior” for men. If Jacque has a son named Jacque, the son is called “T-Jacque.” On the bayou, a T-Rex would not be a dinosaur. T-Rex would be a boy named Rex who was named after his father named Rex.
Cousin is a cousin. It is pronounced cou-za. The “n” is a whisper, hardly heard at all.
Belle is a typical name for women, but it also means a beautiful in an old-fashioned, traditional sense of beauty. Adele est belle.
The loup garou is a werewolf, not a person. There is also the mythical Tu Nu Man. “tu” means you; “nu” means naked. In other words, the Tu Nu Man is a streaker.
Pere Noel is Father Christmas.
Le Bon Dieu is the Good Lord.
Y’all is a Southernism, not a Cajun or Creole word, but it’s a contraction of you all, and is spelled y’all. ALWAYS.
Many towns are name after bayous, or have bayou in the name. This can be confusing. There is a town called Bayou Blue, but it is not a bayou. There is a bayou called Bayou Black, but it is not a town. Don’t ask me to explain this. No one can explain this.
Many towns end in –ville, the French word for town: Labadieville, Donaldsonville, Paincourtville, Napoleonville. If you are making up a town, ending it in –ville is a safe bet.
Many towns and parishes (not counties, see part one) retain French names. The capital city is Baton Rouge, which means “red stick.” My home parish is Lafourche, which means “the fork.”
Many towns have meaningful names. My childhood town was called Golden Meadow after the fields of yellow goldenrods. The French word for goldenrods is pisolis (piss-o-lee). Local legend held that touching a pisolis meant you would wet the bed that night. Hence why little boys in my town would grab handfuls of pisolis and chase little girls with them, as a torment.
Apart from the standard bonjour, bonsoir, etc. here are some local greetings and expressions:
Comment ca va? is a standard greeting. It means how are things, or how’s it going?
Comme ci, comme ca means “like this, like that” but in response to Comment ca va? it means so-so. Things are okay.
De Rien means “it’s nothing” which is the equivalent of no problem or no big deal. If you do a favor for someone and they thank you, de rien is a common response.
C’est la vie means that’s life, it is what it is, that’s how things are.
Quoi ca die? means what’s going on, what’s happening?
Bienvenue means welcome!
Qui ci parlez? means who is talking, who’s speaking? A person might say this on the telephone, if the caller doesn’t identify himself clearly.
C’est tout means that’s all, but it can also mean, I’m done, I’m finished with this.
Mais means but, a protestation or use as emphasis. Mais non means but no, mais oui means but yes.
On the bayou, you would also hear mais ya (may ya) as the equivalent of mais oui.
You’d tell someone in English to pass a good time if they are going out.
Laissez les bon temp rouler means let the good times roll, or telling someone to have a good time.
Bonne Annee means happy new year, but some people say “Bonne Annee” at any and all holidays, just for fun.
Terms of endearment
Cher is Louisiana French for dear or darling. It’s not pronounced like Cher, formerly Bono. It is pronounced sha, as in shack.
Cherie is Parisian French for dear or darling. It is pronounced share-e.
Mon Vielle means my old lady, but not in the hippy way. It’s to show fondness for an older lady relative.
Mon vieux means “old man” but its usage is much like the English club man would say “old boy.”
Mon ami is my friend. Mes amis is my friends. Les amis is the friends.
Bébé means baby in French, but the Cajun version is pronounced “beb” and is used like “babe.”
Defunt means dead. After someone dies, he goes from Jean to Defunt Jean (dead John or defunct John). It’s meant respectfully even if it sounds morbid. I have always heard my grandfather referred to as Defunt Paris.
Pauvre bête translate to poor stupid, but it is an expression of pity, the equivalent of “poor thing.”
Cochon is French for pig. It also means glutton, but not necessarily as an insult. A chubby baby might be called un petit cochon.
Terms of derision
Tête dur means hard headed, stubborn.
Tête de cabri means head of a goat. That’s for someone who is really stubborn.
Couillion (cou-yon) means a stupid or dumb person, but without malice. A fool. A gros couillion is a big fool.
Bon de rien means good for nothing. A bum, a slacker.
Fou is crazy.
C’est fou means that’s crazy, or he’s crazy.
Salop is a messy woman/bad housewife. To call a Cajun woman a salop is a serious insult.
Macaque is a monkey—a showoff person.
Macrow is a promiscuous man—a lady’s man.
Fonchock is a stupid fool, plus a showoff–a dumbass. It is a crude word, however; only someone impolite or very exasperated would call a person a fonchock.
Bête means stupid or silly. C’est bête means that’s stupid.
Gros bête means big stupid. Big fool, or someone who is repeatedly fooled.
Boo doo is a bully.
Coonass is an insult for Cajuns, the equivalent of redneck. Don’t use this word. It’s not nice.
Contraieuse means a contrary person. You say black, he says blue. You say yes, he says no. Someone who argues for the sake of arguing.
Curses and other exclamations
Mon Dieu! My god!
Malhereux! Means unhappy, but is like a frustrated oh no or dadgummit!
Pour l’amour de Dieu! For the love of God!
Sacre bleu! Damn blue! (No clue why blue gets damned, but it does.)
Hoo Lawd! Oh Lord!
Bon Dieu! Good Lord!
Tres bien! Very good!
Chepasse! Go away! (to a dog or other animal)
Random terms and phrases
Geaux is go. Usually used before the word “Tigers” or “Saints.”
Who dat? Is short for the sports chant “Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?”
Yats are white people living in New Orleans. The term comes from “Where y’at?”
Menew is the sound a Cajun cat makes. It does not meow, it menews.
Arête means stop. A police officer would tell a bad guy, “Arête, or I’ll Tase you, bro!”
Arête ca means stop that! An irritated mother would say this to her bickering children.
Gros vent is a big wind, a hurricane.
Ask is pronounced axe. “Axe me again, cher.”
Bahbin is a pouty expression. Boudee means to pout. When you boudee, your face has a bahbin.
Beaucoup means many or a lot. This post has beaucoup words.
Bebette is a monster or a bug.
Bon homme means good man, but it’s the word for a doll, a plaything. G.I. Joe is a bon homme.
Chuchut means thing or thingy. When you need a Phillips head screwdriver but you can’t think of the name of it, you say, “Give me that chuchut to screw in this maudit screw.”
Frissons are goosebumps. It’s a common French word in English sentences. “That horror movie gave me the frissons.”
Envie is a craving, from the English “envy.” Example: I have an envie for crème brulee.
Me, her, him – English words that are inserted into a sentence for emphasis. Example: “I have me an envie for crème brulee.” “Paulette, her, one day that smart mouth will get her in trouble.”
Haunte means embarrassed. “When that cop pulled me over on the I-10, I was so haunte.”
Lagniappe means extra.
Soupcon means a little bit, same as un peu. “Jean-Claude felt a soupçon of dread.”
Pain perdu translates to “lost bread” but it’s really French toast.
Grillades are strips of spiced meat fried and served with grits for breakfast. Grits et grillades.
Pralines are sweet confectionaries. Most people think of pralines as brown with a pecan on top, but my grandmother used to make coconut pralines, boiling the sugar, coconut, and vanilla in a large cast iron pot, and then scooping out spoonfuls to cool on brown paper bags that were cut up and spread across the kitchen counters. A warm coconut praline is paradis. (paradise, heaven)
Fais du mal means make bad. Do a bad deed.
Roder means travel, or run the roads. When you have many errands to run, you roder all day.
Salt meat = salt pork, an important ingredient for gumbo, white beans, red beans, etc.
Tooloolou is a fiddler crab.
A peeshwank is a small person, a runt.
A pi-yi is a bottom, a behind.
Aye-ya-yi means ouch. “She fell on her pi-yi and said ‘aye-ya-yi’!”
Joie de vivre means joy of life. When a Cajun describes a lively woman, it would be “Mais, she’s got some joie, her” which means she is joyful.
This is the end of our Louisiana lexicon! As mentioned above, it is nowhere near a complete list, but sprinkle some of these phrases into your work for a soupçon of authenticity.
If you are curious about a particular word or writing a story for Bouchercon 2016, ask in comments and I will do my best to translate.