The Wordsmith

Balderdash, Twaddle, and Other Macronisms

Despite speaking a very refined French, President Emmanuel Macron allows himself the occasional semantic indulgence.
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© Sylvie Serprix

“The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off.” This sentence, spoken by Emmanuel Macron in January 2022, was not to everyone’s liking. Far from it. In fact, many French people were offended by both the content and style of the diatribe. However, this was not the first time that the French president had made such a blunt declaration. After being heckled by workers at an automobile plant while visiting the Corrèze département in 2017, he criticized those who were “making a goddamn mess.” The following year, in June 2018, he claimed that “crazy amounts of cash” were being swallowed up by government-guaranteed minimum welfare payments.

The 25th French president – the first being Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, elected in December 1848 – is too cultured and sophisticated to spontaneously make such departures from the linguistic norm. If any are made, they are carefully controlled. In an effort to rid himself of his elitist image, Emmanuel Macron sometimes draws on more colorful language than that used in official speeches. He has talked about “having a bite to eat,” “catching a movie,” and even “grabbing a drink at the bar.” Other unusual soundbites that have caught the media’s attention include “You can bet your bottom dollar,” “Don’t talk nonsense,” and “That’s a bunch of baloney.”

When necessary, Emmanuel Macron is also quick to use rare words. Examples include ipséité (“ipseity” or “selfhood”), which he used to describe French identity during an interview with France Culture radio in March 2017, and rémanence (“remanence”), referring to the persistence of a phenomenon after its cause has disappeared, in a speech to the French community in New York in September 2017. The same year, he chose the adverbial phrase in petto, taken from Italian, meaning “in one’s heart of hearts.”

In other cases, it is hard to know if the president deliberately chose an unusual word. For example, when he said “We should not claim that the state is totipotent” in a speech in Frankfurt in October 2017, did he purposefully use this biological term describing the ability of a cell to differentiate into any other cell type? Or did he mean to say “omnipotent”? In the same vein, what did he mean when he confessed that his economic successes were not “percolating” in the minds of the French public?

Sometimes, François Hollande’s successor peppers his speech with expressions that have long been forgotten. Everyone remembers his use of poudre de perlimpinpin (“pixie dust”) and galimatias (“twaddle”), both enunciated during a debate with Marine Le Pen in May 2017. He was then heard, in October 2017, saying the rather unexpected term croquignolesque (“loopy”), an adjective inspired by Croquignol, a character in the Les Pieds nickelés comic-book series created by Louis Forton in the early 20th century. Macronisms struck again in April 2022, when he lambasted Marine Le Pen’s plans for Europe as carabistouilles (“balderdash”) while campaigning in Mulhouse.

During the second debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen on April 20, 2022, several similar words punctuated the incumbent’s speech. He used the verb ripoliner, taken from Ripolin, a brand of highly resistant lacquer, using it to mean “hiding a rather unpleasant reality beneath a glossy surface.” He also attacked his opponent for her outrecuidance, meaning excessive self-confidence and, by extension, a nonchalant manner of speaking that reflects this attitude. “I could make a list using paralipsis” was another statement made by the president, reviving an old stylistic device which consists of saying that you will not talk about something in order to bring it into the conversation.

During this debate between the two claimants to the highest power in the land, a foreign word slipped into Emmanuel Macron’s vocabulary: finito. This means “finished” in Italian, and is used in French in the legal and financial fields to describe the final statement of an account. In common parlance, it is used to conclude a statement.

There are many linguistic mannerisms that have helped create Emmanuel Macron’s image over the years. One of them is the now famous en même temps (“that being said”), which has been repeated so much that it has become as much a verbal tic as a party line. In the context of the public health crisis, quoi qu’il en coûte (“whatever the cost”) became another Macronian mantra in March 2020. More recently, the war in Ukraine and its consequences on the cost of living have inspired the arrival of the term bouclier tarifaire (“pricing shield,” meaning a price cap).

All fanciful semantics aside, one thing is certain: Among all the presidents of the Fifth Republic, Emmanuel Macron has the most extensive vocabulary – equaled only by the Ecole Normale Supérieure graduate and literary specialist Georges Pompidou. And don’t take it from us; semiologists using AI technology to analyze presidential speeches through the ages have come to the same conclusion.

 

Article published in the July 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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