As a Welshman with poetic aspiration and an ear for the richesse of language, I have a love of off-beat expression. Dylan Thomas, my hero, made a lifetime study of listening in on hushed conversions – “as rare as hen’s teeth”, etc. I do same sitting on buses, trains and always having a wide open ear for the one off remark – “you’ll catch your death“, “layols for medlars in bags” and, when asking someone what they are doing, they reply ”painting my bike“.
Yesterday, stopping for a glass of Alsace in my favourite Soho bar (Dylan’s too in his day), the girl serving me poured my drink – then looked at the bottle and seeing barely an inch left, poured the rest into my glass, smiled and then whisphered ”Barmaid’s kiss!”.
This got me thinking. I remembered a note from the wonderful France 24 last autumn - most times many hours ahead of the BBC with their world news – when they published a short guide to French slang – argot – with food connections.
‘Avoir la pêche’ means to be happy or to smile. ‘Avoir un coeur d’artichaud’ means to fall in love easily.
Like the English, they’ll say ‘un vrai navet’ to mean something’s bust, a dud or just plain no good. We all remember The Sun’s front page with similar illustration.
In matters of the illicit affair we might say don’t do something unpleasant on your doorstep – the French say ‘crâcher dans le soupe’, translating literally as ‘spitting in the soup’. Different words, same sentiment.
If some pessimist says ‘fin des haricots’ – translating as ‘the end of the beans’ – he means it’s the end of the world.
In confrontational situations, a Frenchman will delight in ‘mettre de l’eau dans son vin’ because he’s saying someone is backing off a firmly held position in an argument.
A favourite of mine – and one I use at least once a month with some of the spivs I encounter in the food world – I mutter under my breath ‘BOF!’. This takes us back to WW2 and the black market – it references the profiteers, who would offer, at a very high price, ‘beurre, oeufs et fromages’ from outside rationing.
‘Bof’ has moved on – today it applies to those without culture. A French ‘Bof’ is an English ‘chav’. Although, to be fair, a ‘chav’ has very correct origins in Romany language where it means a youngster and is in no way critical.
The French call the British ‘Rosbif‘ – that’s not an insult as such. It simply refers to the traditional ruddy face of an Englishman – said to be from indulging in too much red meat and portwine. The guards at the Tower aren’t called Beefeaters for nothing – remember at least one of the towers is Norman.
In Genoa recently, I was asked if in England we had issue with ‘the mother of the mother’ – I laughed and said that was the basis of most stand-up comedians’ trade.
It’s not all been food, but these expressions are rich in their root. I love them and collect them. ‘Under Milk Wood’ is full of them - treat yourself to the version spoken by the young Richard Burton and you’ll hear the English language at the top, written and performed by Welshmen. The ‘piece for radio’, as Dylan called it, was set in the mythical seaside town of Llareggub – actually Laugharne in real life. Spell Llareggub backwards and you understand the plot.
Bringing it back to food – my mètier – Dylan’s favourite meal at the Boat House in Laugharne or at Brown’s Hotel - was cockles and bacon – and ‘bacon’ is reckoned to be a Welsh word dating back to the Middle Ages to describe cured pig meat – ‘bac-on’.
Another play on words Dylan might have enjoyed, again from Wales, is the toast “here’s to me and my wife’s husband”. I never liked that, nor the way it raised a smug cheer from the weak sorts who stood together at the cocktail parties of my childhood. As the night drew on, my sister and I would put water from the flower vases in their whiskies - and nobody ever noticed.