Uniquely Louisiana French (and English!)

Uniquely Louisiana French, and Part Two of Louisiana English à la française!

In the exciting follow-up to my article from last year, I want to share some of the things that I have recently  learned are “uniquely Louisiana French” expressions.  As may already be evident by now, we speak a bit differently here, even in the way we use English.  However, some of our French expressions are also unique to this area and not used anywhere else in the French-speaking world, which by the way is big, involving over 40 countries!

Français à la Louisianaise

Café du Monde by Chelsea Audibert on Unsplash

Last time, I mentioned our use of a 19th century word, banquette, which here is the sidewalk, and now the French of L’hexagone use differently (the meaning now refers to a small bench).  Yet another expression that we use, that no one outside of New Orleans uses, is vieux carré, meaning “old square”.  We call the old historical part of our city, the downtown area, this way, even though it is more like a rectangle really, a set of original streets laid out in a grid pattern, 14 by 8 blocks, a configuration which hasn’t changed since 1725.  It is a logical way to call the area, and yet we equate it with meaning “the old city” or “the historical district”.  That does not quite work the same way in Europe, where old, historical cities were built in a different way, with more winding roads and starbursts.  If we were to use this term with French speakers in Europe or elsewhere, they will likely wonder what we mean by it.  

Another (possibly) obvious New Orleaneanism is our motto: Laissez les bons temps rouler.  This is a likely translation, from English into French this time.  We say “let the good times roll” in English, but in fact this is not a sentence one would likely say in French.  For as my dear Philippe says, “good times don’t ‘roll’ in French”.  Refer back to Part One of this series, times “pass” in French.  We can “passer un bon temps”, but not roll it.  It had never occured to me after all these years in Louisiana that this would not be possible to say in French. Imagine my surprise!

English “New Orleans Style”

Moving on to more English expressions that are unique to New Orleans, and possibly with French roots, there is the very colorful way that we order our sandwiches.  Here in New Orleans, we order our sandwiches “dressed”, which means served with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.  I always wondered why non-locals looked perplexed at the question.  Does no one else out there order their sandwiches dressed?  (Please tell me in the comments section below!) If not, what do they say, then, when they want all the usual stuff on it?  After much research and discussion with French speakers, we came to the conclusion that there is a culinary equivalent, “habiller” (to dress), used when preparing poultry or other things, by removing innards, feathers, etc.  It would seem that the idea is to “dress it up”, in other words, “make it pretty”.  It sounds like a logical conclusion to me; although, I doubt that the French order their sandwiches “habillés”.  

A student of mine once asked me if there was some French correlation to the expression used locally for putting away the dishes, which here is “save the dishes”.  I think it is possible that it could have come either from the translation of  “garder” (to keep or save, for example “garder la  maison”, to take care of the house) or from “ménager” (“to keep, save, manage” as in “ménager son bien” manage or conserve one’s fortune”).  Le ménage is the household, and let us not forget that faire le ménage means to clean or sweep or tidy the household.  I can not say for sure where the Louisiana expression came from, but I hope some of my readers can shed some light on this for me.

When we want to say “over there”, in Louisiana we say “up the road” as in “my friend lives up the road a bit.”  It is more or less the same in French, en haut de la rue.  Additionally, when we want to say “that day or week in the past”, we say “that week there” just like in French, ce jour-là, cette semaine-là, (literally that day there, that week there).

There’s one that I cannot determine yet, but may add an update here if I can get some information from those of you who are locals out there.  In French to say the day of the week, it is either aujourd’hui c’est.. (today is..) and the name of the day of the week, or nous sommes… and the day.  This last one translates as “we are… “,  as in “We are Monday.”  Do any Louisiana locals say that?  I have a feeling that it is something that may be said here, but I cannot be sure. 

This last one was recently brought to my attention (Thanks, Faye!).  When we “pass by your house” here in Louisiana, we may also say that we are not “going to get down”. That is our way of saying that we are coming by to see you, but not getting out of the car.  That also comes directly from the French who use the verb descendre (literally: to descend, go down) to say “get out of (a car or bus)”.

I love the charming, colorful way that people speak here.  It is like its own foreign language in America, centered on this little tiny space in the deep South, on this tropical island, the northernmost city of the Caribbean.  French is so integrated into our daily lives here that we are not always even aware of it. When I have pointed out some of the similarities in the way we speak here to the French my students are learning, they are often amazed. It is in our blood, in our lifestyles, and it is a vital part of our identity. 

Vieux Carré street sign
by Naveen Venkatesan on Unsplash

If there is anything to add, please write to me in the comments.  If you have any questions about local Louisiana expressions that you think might be of French origin, also please write me here and I can look into it for you!

I Heard the Owl…

I Heard the Owl Call My Name, but Margaret Craven

This is a classic which I first read during my bachelor’s program in the spring of 1995.  I have since read it several times with some of my ESL students, and each time we did a very close read, discussing themes and topics along the way. With every new reading, I am reminded of how deeply philosophical it is, how it emphasizes the strength and importance of community, and how a village is really like an extended family.  I am moved every time by the reading. This is really the kind of book that a person might reflect upon from time to time for years to come, and a great book to enjoy at a time like this, so isolated and separated from our own communities.

Photo by Keith Lazarus on Unsplash

Based on a true story, it is the life of a priest, Mark, who unbeknownst to him is dying, of what exactly the reader never knows.  Due to this unfortunate news regarding the young vicar, the bishop decides to send him to his most difficult parish, the remote Native American village of Kingcome, in the Pacific Northwest.  The bishop knows that Mark has a lot yet to learn and wants to help him do so as quickly as possible because he does not have a lot of time left.  The post will be a challenging one for Mark, and even the trip to arrive there is arduous. He will have to go from one boat to an even smaller boat upriver, through mountains, not to mention the harsh climate he will have to endure, the isolation, and the task of understanding or getting to know the villagers.  However, Mark is wise and patient.  He knows the value of waiting and keeping silent, listening.  Over time he learns more about them, while never fully understanding them, as even he admits. He does in the end, however, end up being respected and even loved by the villagers who mourn his passing in the traditional ceremonial way.  

Here is a place of myth, of old legends, where the river is life itself, linking all the other villages, the only way in or out, where the boat he drives becomes an extension of himself.  From chapter one we learn the meaning of the title, which also is a legend in which the owl will call the name of the man about to die.  Here nature is One with man, and they are all connected, and even dependent on each other.  We learn of the slow and steady bond growing between him and another Indian named Jim, of how important that bond becomes, of how much he has influenced the villagers and how much they have influenced him.  In fact, their influence on him was so great, Mark could not imagine returning to his world.  He was a changed man.  He would never again belong to the modern world, and worried a lot about when the time would come that he would have to return there.  

This book reminds me of the importance of stillness, or the simpler way of life, of how isolated we have become, in our own worlds separated from society. In the village they suffered together through the rains and the harsh winters, helping each other, sharing food, but in this modern society we have built for ourselves, we suffer alone.  The villagers seek to preserve their traditions and rites through dances and stories, but we throw away the old and replace it with new and shiny.  The only other man in the village not a Native American was the teacher, who stayed apart from the others. At the death of Mark, he was unable to open the door to join the others, thinking that, “To join the others was to care, and to care was to live and to suffer.”  (158)  We shy away from death, hide it behind closed doors because the reality is scary.  We hide from life too often because being a part of it means risking loss, which is scary.  Yet, death is a part of life in the village, and everyone shares in it, takes part in the responsibility of it.  It is the cycle of life and a part of everyone and everything in the village.  

It is on the short list of books that have made me emotional.  I ended up absolutely loving the characters, especially Jim, Mrs. Hudson, Marta, and Keetah.  They are charming and caring and wise. This book is inspiring and philosophical, a truly memorable book to remind us of the essential things of life.  

***** This book is available for English Book Club**** See Courses for details.

Home, Sweet Home…

There’s no place like home.

While we are all sitting at home, confined inside our houses and apartments, it is a good time to think about the meaning of the word “home” and how it differs from “house”.  What does it really mean?  How many definitions are there and which, if any, is most accurate or correct?  Does every language have an equivalent, or even a different designation for house and home?  It was recently brought to my attention that in French this distinction can be made. For house, there is maison (which could also be home) or even domicile; otherwise there is foyer for home, but the usage is very specific and is a word that also refers to the hearth, or fireplace, words often used metaphorically for the warmth of the home.

Home is where the hearth is.
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Yet my question is really whether people think of the two words, house and home, differently or use them interchangeably without considering even a nuanced difference.  For me, a house is simply where you lay your head at night, but a home is something more abstract.  It is a feeling, or maybe even an ambiance.  For some people it may be where they were born, spent their formative years, where they had their first memories, where their family is now, or anywhere that their family currently is, or even any place that they are currently living.  They may go “home” for the holidays, to their childhood home, for example. However, if their parents moved somewhere, would they then have two homes? If not, would the new house be their new home, or would the old one forever be home and the new one just where their parents are now?  How do they choose? My family has moved 5 times since I was born, and my “home” is none of those places.  I do not have a single memory of the place where I was born, and the place where I spent my first 15 years in school is not special to me.   

How does a person feel when he is home? Does he have a different feeling when he is elsewhere?  If a person goes on vacation or goes to visit friends, does he have a different feeling in those places?  What can a person do to make the place where he lives feel “homey”?  For me, home is a place that I have chosen because it is a place where I have found myself to be most comfortable.  It is a place where I can be myself, where I am free to express myself, where everyone is so open about who they are that no one person stands out. It is a place welcome to all manners of lifestyle, and has been so throughout its entire history, so this welcoming attitude is really built into the fiber of the city, as if part of its “cultural genetics”.

This home of mine is a place that embraces three of the things I value most, food, community, and leisure. Food is celebration, as is evidenced by the fact that all of our festivals here involve, or even feature, food.  There are countless food festivals here, too many to mention, and we have nearly run out of weekends in the year for them.  We have a caring, warm, embracing community here. Neighbors speak to each other, look out for each other, smile sincerely and warmly as if they have known each other all their lives.  Shopkeepers remember their customers, remember their orders, say hi and even learn their names.  I have never felt so important as a customer anywhere else but here.  

As for leisure, it is a way of life, nay, it is an art form in this town.  We must move slowly here, being just too hot and soupy most of the year to bother being in a rush. It feels sometimes like walking through a pool of water thigh-high, my legs heavy and slow.  Yet, what is the rush? Our goal is to enjoy life, to the fullest, and our festivals are evidence of that, not many lasting less than an entire weekend.  Our meal times are an event.  I once spent 3.5 hours at a table in a restaurant.  We had long finished eating, but were too busy enjoying the conversation and finishing wine to realize the time that had passed.  That is the point.  The waiter never pressured us to finish our meal either.  

My porch with a book and coffee!

The pace of life is exceptionally slower here than other places I have been, like Tokyo or Paris, where I often felt pushed along with the current, adrift on a sea of people. The frenetic pace of cities like that was dizzying and left me feeling wind-blown.  Only after leaving Tokyo, 30 minutes into my train ride home and over two rivers, did I feel as if I could breathe again.  Where is everyone going in such a hurry?  For us here in the deep South, here in soulful New Orleans, porch-sitting is a local pastime.  I often sit on my porch, occasionally talk to neighbors walking by, watch the birds, breathe the banana-infused, Magnolia-soaked air, while reading a book with a nice hot cup of coffee next to me, letting the time slip by. I dreamt of that one day.  When I awoke, I smiled and said, “Yes, that is it. That is what I want.”  That is what home feels like to me.


I would love to hear your contributions!  Make a comment below and tell me what home means to you.