Bernard Bichakjian writes:
In a world of infelicitous events and disingenuous newsmakers, it is soothing for the soul and stimulating for the mind to click on the New York Times Op-Ed tab and thence, on Wednesdays and Sundays, on Maureen Dowd’s column. Her take-no-prisoner style of criticism reads like the watching of a shooting scene, an effect she achieves through the use of expressive language from slang to lofty idioms and even, here and there, with a bon mot from a foreign language.
In last Sunday’s paper (March 30), she was quoting Bernard Kouchner who had said that with President Bush’s calamitous policies, America’s magic wasgone. Maureen’s reply was: “Pas si vite, mon vieux.”
“Pas si vite!” is OK. It means literally ‘not so fast’ and it could be translated in the vernacular with ‘wait a minute,’ or more rhetorically ‘don’t get carried away.’ A native speaker, however, would not have said “mon vieux” in these circumstances.
With or without the possessive, “vieux,” like the English ‘(good) ole’ implies a period of acquaintance of a certain length and a sense of camaraderie. I don’t think that is the case in the Maureen and Kouchner’s situation.
“Pas si vite, cher ami!” is what a native speaker would have said, with the understanding that “cher” and “ami” be taken, not with sarcasm, but with their most diluted meaning.
Bernard H. Bichakjian
There is maybe two different ways to think about what Maureen said :
(1) On the one hand, we can consider that she obviously didn’t share a long enough period of acquaintance with B. Kouchner and therefore shouldn’t have said “mon vieux”. This may sound rather impolite if she wasn’t in school with the French foreign minister.
(2) But, on the other hand, we can also admit that “mon vieux” is a way to IMPLY a certain sense of complicity. Not with the man but with the subject. It does NOT mean she actually had this complicity with Kouchner. It mean that she uses this bit of a phrase as an expression, to be able to say something you wouldn’t dare to say otherwise. Unless you are….. old pals! She doesn’t say Kouchner is old. She says : I know about this subject, I’ve been thinking about it for ages and therefore I can talk about it as old pals do.
Yes, I know it’s difficult to explain! But still, I think we can assume that “pas si vite mon vieux” is just like when, in french, we say “les deux mon general”, when we’re questionned about to different things as an alternative, when we do believe both are right. And we say: “les deux mon général”
The person you’re talking to is obviously NOT a general; and you know it! But still, you say “les deux mon général”. Not as a joke, and not to be unpolite but as a way to express yourself BEYOND the obvious expected and polite way. It’s to be considered and swallowed not as a real statement (the age of the person you’re talking to) but as a full expression. Not like: “too easy old pal” but like: “too-easy-old-pal” as a whole 4-word expression. When you say “Swiss army knife” you talk about a “multi-task-thing” and not about a real army knife. Same with “trop facile mon vieux”.
It’s an expression as a whole. Don’t take each word for what it is individually. Don’t say “trop facile” at the beguining is OK but “mon vieux” in the end is wrong. Take the whole four-word expression !
When we say “les deux mon général” or “pas si vite mon vieux” we know that there’s no général in the room and that the person is not an “old pal”. But we use these two expressions as a Trojan horse to jump over the problem. To imply a possibility to say things that couldn’t be said otherwise.
Perhaps I’m wrong 🙂 (i’m French and my english is terrible, sorry).
Sorry to comment my own comment. Mais j’ai reçu un email me disant :
“Where did the ‘army knife’ and ‘ multi-task-thing’ come from??? I don’t get the first one at all and I’m wondering about the 2nd one.”
Ce que je peux répondre en priant encore les lecteurs de ce blog de me pardonner d’intervenir encore :
Oui, je sais, c’est assez compliqué et j’ai sans doute très confus dans ma tentative désespérée de sauver le soldat Maureen 🙂 Je voulais simplement dire que parfois une expression est un concept entier : on ne peut pas prendre un bout du début et changer la fin. Dans l’expression utilisée par Mauren (“pas si vite mon vieux”), on ne peut pas décider de garder le début (pas si vite”) et dechanger la fin (“mon vieux”). C’est un TOUT à prendre comme un bloc qui a son propre sens. C’est la raison pour laquelle je faisais une référence, un peu maladroite, au “swiss-army-knife” : on ne peut pas garder le début (“swiss army”) et changer la fin (“swiss army spoon”). C’est un concept à prendre en entier. Pareil avec “pas si vite mon vieux” ! Pareil avec “les deux mon général” : si le type qui est en face de vous est docteur, on ne dit pas “les deux mon docteur” ! On continue de dire : “les deux MON GENERAL”. Donc (à mon avis, mais je crois que je suis le seul à penser ainsi), Maureen avait raison de dire “pas si vite mon vieux” ! Compliqué huh !
From Bernard Bichakjian:
In my contribution to Susan’s blog, I had expressed my admiration for Maureen Dowd style of writing and pointed out that her reacting to a statement by Bernard Kouchner, with “pas si vite, mon vieux” was ill-worded since “(mon) vieux” normally implies a period of personal acquaintance and a measure of camaraderie. I had suggested that when one corrects a person that is simply a debating opponent, the proper way to address him is with “cher ami,” and I had stipulated to the reader that this form of address is neither sarcastic, nor a declaration of dearness or friendship.
My remarks have prompted a reader to write in a commentary: “I think we can assume that ‘pas si vite mon vieux’ is … an expression as a whole … [and one should not] take each word for what it is individually.” This assumption is somewhat surprising, especially in view of the fact that there is a standard formula, which is “Pas si vite, papillon,” comparable in form, not meaning of course, with alliterative phrases such as “See you later, alligator.” When taking leave with such a formula, one does not have to prove resemblance between the addressee and the American reptile. But, if, instead, one decides to break down the formula and use another word for the addressee, e.g. “see you later, buddy/buster/doctor/sweetheart/etc.” the paradigmatic replacement of “alligator” must fit the status of the addressee and the nature of the speaker’s relationship with the addressee. Likewise, when correcting an opponent that is not an acquaintance or an associate, either the idiomatic “Pas si vite, papillon!” which may sound a bit cavalier, but perhaps very much in line with Maureen’s style, or the circumstantial “Pas si vite, cher ami!”
From an impressive polyglot:
je suis d’accord que “mon vieux” ainsi que “ma vieille” sont des expressions analogues a “mon pote” (mon copain–avec qui j’ai partage le pain) qui indique une grande familiarite– base sur un vecu partage– s’est installee entre les interlocuteurs. On ne peut pas dire “mon vieux” a quelqu’un qu’on connait a peine ou, a plus forte raison, pas du tout.