Housing project have Fun with Words

Condé, gonfler, bishop, y a dra, boîte de 6,… Have you ever heard of these French expressions? Vivid imagination has given rise to a real language in the housing projects. In Evry, a group of ten young people were involved in dissecting, breaking down, questioning these expressions and creating… an actual dictionary.

These teenagers picked up words every day, at the grocers’, in the street, in the high school grounds, and accumulated almost 600 words to be included in their dictionary. This is their contribution to a scheme called “Struggle against violence”, witch was launched in 2004 by the Prefecture of the Essonne region. “Yes, it’s true; we speak in an encrypted language so that others cannot understand us. But, other people don’t try to understand us, straightaway they think we are scum because we use this language. In this situation, everyone withdraws a little from each other. We have chosen to create a vocabulary to reverse this trend, to build up links between the generations,” explains Cédric Nagau, who took part in writing this unique dictionary.

It took three years’ work and ten passionate young people to write the Lexik des Cités (Glossary of the Housing Projects), a book that deserves many tributes. It was sponsored by Alain Rey, the mainstay of the Le Robert dictionaries; more than 35,000 copies were sold in one month; it has been reprinted for the fourth time and this illustrated guide has even attracted the interest of foreign media. A far cry from Prévert’s lists, the Lexik des Cités defines words in a formal manner, explains the word in a context and gives a historical or fictive etymology (see chapter 1 in Resources). “At first we wondered what legitimacy we had  in inventing or imagining the origin of the words, but I think these moments of collective madness were a growing experience for everyone”, Marcela Pérez thinks, who has known these novice linguists for almost ten years and has directed their project. Her association “Permis de vivre la ville”, regularly gets involved in the Bois Sauvage district in Evry. “For these young people, getting together twice a week for two years was a real sacrifice.

Step one: collecting words from everywhere, which then had to be examined and only 241 were kept. “It was hard to determine the selection criteria, but after much debate we all decided together to keep only the most innovative or essential words”, says Marcela. Throughout the project, the group proceeded in a purely practical manner, by trial and error, without any predetermined approach. It was a conscience decision not to enforce a methodology, best way of doing things, according to the coordinator, to give the young people the time to take a step back and analyze their language and to give the adults the time to understand them.  

Step two: everyone had to put forward a context in which the selected words could be used. From these contexts came the ideas for the illustrations that accompanied the definitions. The cartoonist of the crew* also did sketches of little everyday scenes, where a mother and daughter experienced misunderstandings by interpreting the words in different ways. “At this stage, the group had reached the necessary level of maturity to think about the meaning of the words again and to define them in a clearer way”, Marcela noticed.

The final step consisted of looking for the etymology of the word… by asking people around them, looking in the library or on the internet; the authors discovered the origin of the words they use. These words often turned out to be older than the teenagers themselves. “Condé”, a masculine word meaning “police officer” could well date back to the Ancient Regime (sixteenth to seventeenth century) when the princes of Condé were the last descendants in charge of the police of the court. “Gonfler”, a transitive verb, meaning “to bash up” or “to beat” someone, comes from the latin word “conflare” meaning “to swell”. There were also words form further afield, from outside the housing project… A “bishop” is a skirt or pants worn around the buttocks. This fashion trend comes from Bishop, a character played in a movie by Tupac, an American singer and gangster rap icon (a music style created at the end of the 1980s). The expression “y a Dra”, which means “il y a une bagarre” (“there’s a fight”), comes from Africa, where in Bambara (the language of Mali), “dara” means an “ill turn” and in Ivoirian slang “dra” means “shame”. In both cases, these expressions are derived from the French expression "être dans de sales draps" (“to be in it up to your neck”), which came to the continent due to colonization and the enlistment of Senegalese skirmishers.

On the other hand, some expressions are pure products of the housing projects: the “boite de 6” (“the box of six”) means a “police van” because “‘the fast food generation uses coarse metaphors, and a box of chicken nuggets becomes a police van with six places”, explains the glossary. We also see how back slang has changed: “the adjective moche (meaning “ugly”) became “cheum” and to encrypt it even more, in 91 (a suburb of Paris) the word “chime” is now used”, explains the graphics guy of the group, Franck Longepied.

"Far from being politically correct, here, being direct is what counts: a black is a black and calling him so is not considered racist. They got over this way of thinking a long time ago. No matter what color their skin, when you want to call a friend, you use the word Négro (nigger), ma couille (balls), frère (brother), kho**(mate)”, explains Marcel Pérez. One of the challenges was to wipe away misunderstandings, embarrassment and the divides that this language generates. Today, Marcela is proud of her team and of this book that “invites the reader to reconsider the image of the housing projects presented in the media and to understand the humor and the humanity”.

* Crew: [pronounced crou], masculine noun. Team, group of friends, sharing a passion. From the latin word crescare to “arise and grow”, the French word “creues” meaning “recuit, military reinforcement”, was borrowed in the 16th century by the English, spelled crew, to describe “a group acting together”. After coming back to France the young people in the housing projects used it with the same meaning but adding the idea of a shared passion.

** Kho: [pronounced kho with the kh like the Spanish jota], masculine noun. 1) Mate/man, example "Kho, bouge ta voiture, j’arrive pas à passer !" (Man, move your car, I can’t get by!), synonyms: boug, frolo, igo. 2) Mates/pals, example "T’as pas des nouvelles de mon kho qui est partir en vacances ?" (Have you not heard from my mate who went off on holidays?) , synonyms: ma came (drug), ma couille (balls), frère (brother), gros (fat), ma gueule (face), négro (nigger), poto.

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