A friend asked me how work was going the other day. “Ca va? Tu fais de l’oseille?”
I had to laugh. It’s a funny sort of expression, and joking is just about the only way you can safely refer to money in conversation.
If there are a lot of words to describe something in a language, is that an indication of its importance? There are certainly a bunch of ways to talk about money in French: argent (money, but also silver), monnaie (currency but also coins or change), liquide (cash), blé (bread), fric, pognon, thune (dough, money, bucks).
Between blé (wheat) and galette (cake), both slang terms for money, do I hear echoes of Marie Antoinette? (“Let them eat cake!” Which, by the way, was one of the original ‘fake news’ and wrongly attributed to that hapless royal.
I like the sound of the word oseille, and the quirkiness of the expression. It reminds me of what we might call in English, ‘the green stuff’. To be fair, we have quite a few ways of talking about money: cash, bucks, George Washingtons, dough, moolah, do-re-mi, rolling in it. Most of these are pretty dated, like moi. I’ll have to rely on any younger bucks among you to update my lingo.
We all need money to live. Having enough not to have to count it all the time certainly makes life easier. It is, however, one of the great taboos of the French culture. It doesn’t do to talk about, to show it off, or spend it too obviously. Money is not something people tend to talk about. How much things cost or, worse, how much you make. Don’t mention the inheritance you got when your grandfather died. Or what you paid for your house. You might as well ask someone their age, religion or political party while you’re at it.
This may well be true in most cultures. But in France I would go further and suggest that people have an issue with wealth, period. It doesn’t do to be rich around here. Thankfully, I am not. And if one day I win the lottery, it’s just a hop across the lake to Switzerland.
The oseille herb, on the other hand, does have real value hiding among its acidic green leaves. When cooked, they reveal a lovely flavour that is delicious in omelettes, sauces and soups. You may know it as sorrel.
How do you like your oseille?
I think there are two segments in France, as in many countries: The normal people and then the rich, for whom the rules don’t apply. Normal people think that anybody who works full-time shouldn’t be poor, and that the government should help them by taxing the rich and redistributing it to those who work but who earn less. They also think that the poor who don’t work shouldn’t be relegated to living in the streets. The rich are not so crazy about the tax part and hide their money offshore. They do seem to keep track of what others are up to, from the size of their yachts to the number of their properties to the youth and beauty of their latest wives to whatever other measures they favor. And they aren’t just comparing to other rich French but to other rich people around the world, who have a panoply of magazines and Web sites and consultants dedicated to measuring wealth and keeping score.
I think secrets just protect people like that. Everybody comes from different circumstances but secrets about salaries generally just help depress women’s pay, and secrets about wealth just allow the rich to hide their money from taxes.
I agree with all of this, especially the last statement: secrets are toxic. To individuals and society. That said, I find it hard to really condemn either end of the rich and poor spectrum. Where is the line? And isn’t it only natural to take advantage of loopholes to pay less tax if the system allows it? Yet I cannot agree more that we need sweeping reform to ensure that people who work (and those who can’t) can live reasonably comfortably from the fruits of their labours. Beginning to feel like what we are witnessing is purely and simply the death throes of capitalism. I fear it is not going to be a quick or painless death. 😩
I’m talking about the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, which are beyond loopholes. Check out the French podcast Spla$h and its episodes about capitalism.
That looks like an interesting podcast. Thanks!
Sorrel is almost indestructible – one of those plants that almost thrives on neglect!! 🙂 I love it chopped finely in a salad…
Interesting. I have never tried to grow it. Do you have acidic soil in the south?
In some places (schist) but in my garden the soil is heavy clay! And it still survives!! 🙂
I give you 3 other words I like for money :
1) le grisbi . This one was used by traditional outlaws (those who had a sense of honour) of what is called “Le Milieu” in French) . From WWI to the 60s this term was always used as it is shown in the dictionary of classical French slang written by the gangsters novels writer Albert Simonin . Yes there is a real dictionary of this particular slang . Simonin wrote a “Série Noire” book named “Touchez pas au grisbi” .
2) La fraîche . Another previous gangsters term that moved into everybody’s slang .
3) Le flouze . This term, like a good deal of others, was imported from French Maghreb (flouz is money in North African Arabic) and unlike “grisbi” is not outdated . One can still hear it today in the streets .
I can always count on you, Phil, to surprise me with things I have never heard of. 😉 Le grisbi is one. Another is le Milieu. Who knew there was organized crime in France? Certainly not little old naïve me! Flouze is a funny word — sounds a bit like ‘floozy’ in English which means a slut (but an old fashioned term).
Organized crime in France ? Marseilles has been for centuries one of the world organized crime capitals . Never heard of the French connection ? Based in Marseilles, implying big Corsican gangs, close to Italy . But in the XXth century every city had her “Milieu”, le gang des Lyonnais was one famous one and of course Paris was always a mine of gangs, thieves and murderers corporations of the Middle-Age, “les Apaches” of the XIXth century, yes crime has always been a big business in France, and our stock exchange proudly maintained this noble tradition …
Guess I always thought the ideas about Marseille were a bit exaggerated — just like the Marseillais themselves are accused of being! 😂 And I never put two and two together to think that ‘grand banditisme’ was the same as organized crime. We tend to think in stereotypes until we encounter real-life examples that say differently. Thankfully I have never had a personal encounter with the mob!
I’ve never tried this herb and don’t know if it’s available here.
Must admit I have no idea. But it does grow wild in France and elsewhere in Europe so why not?
I’ll have to look into that.
There are several countryside regional recipes using sorrel : soups, sauces, with salmon, sweetbreads or goats kids, eggs, … it’s common in all northern Europe, central Asia and northern America .. It has a lot of healthy properties, was used as medicine in antiquity and Middle-Age, and has a delightful acid taste .
I’m going to see if I can find some!
My farming grands used to pick it wild along their rural tracks to feed their rabbits, but it is easy to grow in gardens too . .
I think I’ll give it a try! Sounds like a win on every level.
I had to Google “oseille” though I guessed it was “greens” from your picture. As with everything linguistic, the strict definition of the word is only the beginning of interpretation. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever had sorrel and now I’m keen to try it. As for the topic of discussing money, I wish it wasn’t so taboo but it has so much to do with ranking ourselves against others. Perhaps it is the French revolutionary history (equality) that makes it a non-starter of a topic?
I think that the ranking thing is entirely true, Susanne. Why give anyone the power to compare us with whatever scale by sharing this kind of information? We are already judged by what we wear, how we talk… Equality is definitely an issue in France. An assumption in the law but the reality is entirely different. As for oseille, I must say I’ve never paid that much attention to it but given some of the comments, am also eager to give it a try!
The many French words for money almost rival the Eskimos’ lexicon for snow! The oseille reference does seem oddly specific, though. I wonder if it was used at some point as currency? No matter the origin of the expression, thank you for this fantastic and informative post!
If only money were as abundant as snow in the great white north, eh? 😉 I found an article on the origins of ‘oseille’ but there is no clear answer on the origins of the association with money. Glad you enjoyed!
How different from Australia where everyone discusses money all the time, at least in Sydney. “So what’s your house worth?” is normal chitchat. Even more refined types with a distaste for such things find themselves falling into these rude ways. Apparently. 😉
We could sure use some of that refreshing (to me) Aussie directness. Maybe it has something to do with the insane housing market? In Canada, too, real estate prices are through the roof (lol) and take over many friendly conversations!
I’ve never known a time here when real estate hasn’t been a topic of conversation. And with prices now taking a tumble, so it continues! (I confess I’m as bad as everyone else…)
I honestly loathe the British indirectness when it comes to money. It’s not as if, in Italy, we do each other’s tax returns but if you ask, you’ll get an answer. Here, instead, it’s a merry-go-around of things left not said. It’s even more frustrating during job interviews.
Well, I can accept people not talking about their own private finances but in job interviews? Salary has got to be part of the conversation, and vacation and benefits while we’re at it! And I have found my Italian friends to be very transparent in their communications on most topics including the cost of things. Definitely a healthier approach to money.