This is my first ever post in my first ever blog. As I haven't a clue what constitutes a good first blogpost, and as I am painfully lazy to boot, I thought I'd simply paste in an article I wrote a few months ago - an article which is way too rude to publish anywhere else. My apologies to all sensitive readers. And the French.
A Rose By Any Other Name?
Sean Thomas reports on some terminological trouble in the Deep South of France.
It's like any little town in the rural south of France - only prettier. Old men play boules in the shade of the linden trees. Pretty girls cycle past with baguettes pointing from their rucksacks. In front of the Hotel de Ville three tricolores hang ostentatiously in the fine summer sun. In fact, it could be a Gallic vision of earthly paradise - if it weren't for one thing. The town's name is Tampon.
Sipping a pastis in his favourite brasserie, the fifty-something mayor of Tampon, Gaston Lefevre, explains the latest difficulties caused by the town's name. 'It started about about ten years ago, with these Australian backpackers. They came to Tampon, and they took photos. By the town sign.' Gaston finishes his drink, slapping it down on the zinc-topped bar. 'Pas de probleme! But then they tell their friends, and their friends aussi, and now every summer we have many hundreds of them. They come, they take the photo, they laugh and shout Tampon! to their friends, and then pouf! - they are gone. They do not even spend money!'
For such a small place, Tampon is quite haughtily historic. The river Lisiec has been wending its languid way through the vieux ville for nearly two thousand years. Louis XIV used to send his favourite bastard children here; he allegedly once came himself with the royal mistress. Closer to our own time, famous French footballer Michelle Platini recently bought a home in the sunny chestnut-woods nearby.
The people of beautiful Tampon are, consequently, not used to being laughed at: and the touristic kerfuffle over their name has punctured their civic amour propre. But what to do? After much deliberation, the town council has decided to petition the French State, via the Ministry of the Interior, for permission to change the name of the town.
Job done? Not in France. It turns out that under an obscure Napoleonic law - the 'Loi Tissiane' - any French city, town, village, or hamlet is forbidden to change its name, without the express permission of the Senate and the President. Such permission is, of course, almost impossible to get, given the stubbornly slow wheels of French bureaucracy. The upshot is that it may be many years, even decades, before Tampon gets its new, less 'hilarious' name.
It's a setback, but Gaston Lefevre tries to remain stoical. He says they can wait: the townspeople have been called 'Tamponniers' for twenty centuries. He is however burningly curious about one thing. 'You Anglo-Saxons, why do you snigger?' He sighs, expressively. 'In French, the word tampon can also mean what I think it means for you, a coussinet, the cloth for the female period. But we do not have hordes of French tourists laughing by our town sign! Only you English. What is this: your strange humour?'
The derivation of 'Tampon' is obscure. Some people think it comes from the Occitan dialect word tapon, which refers to the rags used to clean, and plug, medieval cannons. That would make some sense, as this part of the Languedoc saw many religious wars in the 13th and 14th centuries. Other scholars think the name predates the crusades against the Cathars and Templars, and is some kind of Celtic tribal name. Perhaps it once belonged to a proud Gallo-Roman chieftain.
But if Tampon's name is curious, there are others in this lost part of rural southern France which are even more intriguing. Not far away from Tampon, towards la ville rose of Toulouse, is the departmental capital of Condom. This town has been the butt of many jokes in the last few decades; but it bears them bravely, and even exploits the possibilities in its tourist merchandise. The same goes for the fishing village of Pubic-sur-mer, down on the sea near Narbonne. It was once favoured by great painters like Cezanne; now it's more famous for its naughty postcards emblazoned with the town's 'amusing' name. This name, of course, simply means the hill-by-the-sea.
And then there's the village of Cuntface. This pretty, straggling village is only twelve miles from Tampon, up the green wooded valley of the River Lisiec.
What is extraordinary about Cuntface, is that the locals do not seem to realise the striking double entendre. When questioned, for instance, the local pattisier, Monsieur Pejul, can only shrug. 'Oui, Cuntface? What are you looking at? Zis name is difficult for you? It means... ow you say?' Similarly blank faces can be found in any of the village's bars and cafes. The people of Cuntface actively deny any knowledge of the English meaning of the name; and look shocked when it is explained to them.
The same remarkable ignorance is shown in the neighbouring hamlet of Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Cunt-Buggery-Tits-Cock-Fucking-Wank-Arsehole. This is a tiny French farming village of some hundred souls, dwarfed by the Pyrenees above. It doesn't even have a bar, or a church, just a little shop, and a rather quiet cafe. In the cafe the local flic, the village bobby, looks puzzled when questioned about his village's extraordinary name.
'Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Cunt-Buggery-Tits-Cock-Fucking-Wank-Arsehole is a very nice place', he says, in his thick but charming mountain dialect. 'We are very 'appy here. I do see there is une probleme with our name. What does it mean? You mean it eez rude?'
Anglophone visitors to Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Cunt-Buggery-Tits-Cock-Fucking-Wank-Arsehole may find such indifference perplexing - even risible. But they should remember that our English-speaking world has more than a few intriguing names of its own. Near the Leicestershire town of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, for instance, is the large village of Derriere-sur-la-Nez. Scholars are unsure why the villages and towns in this part of the foxhunting Midlands have unusual French names; no one has any idea at all why little Derriere should boast such a peculiar moniker.
Other placenames around the UK have similarly wry echoes for foreign visitors. Old Cojones, near Harrogate, sees busloads of chuckling Spanish tourists every summer. Beautiful Scheissedale, also in Yorkshire, gets dozens of German visitors, some of whom aren't there solely because it's in Herriot country. And what about Merde-Merde-Merde-Merde-Merde-Merde-Pissoir-Merde-Foutre-Batard-Pissoir!, a pretty little seaport just south of Alnwick?
Remember that next time you are laughing at a badly translated foreign menu.