Jul 5th 2008

When a frog Is not a frog

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The main French defense manufacturer called a group of experts and some economic journalists together a few years ago to unveil a new military helicopter. They wanted us to choose a name for it and I thought I had the perfect one: "The Frog". I argued my case as best I could after the long lunch they provided.

What could be more suitable for a French machine that hops from pad to pad? Other French helicopters have equally fanciful names -- Alouette, Elephant Joyeux, Dolphin and Frelon (bumblebee).

But the French aerospace executives suspected I was making fun of them as "Frogs", a nickname they disliked, so my idea didn't fly. They had seen British tabloids use the term against them one time too many. In the end, they called the helicopter "Squirrel", even less complimentary, I thought.

What's wrong with being called a frog? It is no worse than being a German "kraut" or an Italian "Eye-tie". If you believe the experts at the Oxford English Dictionary, it dates only from 1873 but admittedly it is defined as "a term of contempt for a Frenchman, from their reputed habit of eating frogs."

I would have said "term of affection" (which it can also be) but it is true that they eat frogs' legs -- roughly 60,000 actual pairs of legs a year -- sourced mainly from Asia and East Europe. Finer French restaurants carry them on their menus occasionally.

I find the dictionary's definition unconvincing in another way, however. The French are not alone in their eating habits. The Chinese and other Asian countries consider frogs' legs a delicacy yet we don't call them "froggies". Even English epicures have been known to be pro-frog. Victorian essayist Charles Lamb was an early fancier. "I have been in France and I have eaten frogs," he wrote. "The nicest little rabbity things you ever tasted."

Recently I opted for fried frogs' legs as an appetizer at an upmarket restaurant in my adopted home town Bordeaux. I found them more chickeny than rabbity and a lot more trouble to eat than they were worth. You can't get a strip of meat off those tiny bones without surgical tools, and they make such a mess they are served with a finger-bowl.

Surely the French could not be nicknamed for this little dish.

Attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery, I turned to linguistic history and discovered the writings of 19th century eccentric polymath Jean-Pierre Brisset, who was as close to a French frog as you can get. He believed humans were descended from frogs and he decided they were saying "coac-coac". This is where the story goes off the rails. Brisset tried to engage them in conversation and thought he heard "Quoi, quoi?", French for "What, what?"

"One day," he wrote, "we were observing these pretty little animals, repeating their cry, 'coac', when one of them responded, its eyes sparkling, by two or three 'coacs'. It was clear to us that he was asking us, "What are you saying?" Brisset's retort to the frog was not recorded. They are still crying "Coac coac?" all over the French countryside.

This theory assumes that the frog was speaking French, a satisfying discovery for Brisset, and convenient for his chauvinistic enquiries into the origin of human language.

This theory falls to pieces, however, when comparing other renderings of the frog's croak: In Russian, the frog says "kva kva", in Japanese "kerokero", in Korean gae-gool-gae-gool", in Thai "ob ob", in Turkish "vrak vrak", in Cajun French "ouaouaron", and in Argentine Spanish, simply "burp".

The Greek dramatist Aristophanes captured it best of all: "Brekekekex brekekekex koax koax" in "The Frogs".

As far as I know, none of these expressions means "What?" Worse, "coac" is pronounced "quack" in French, raising all sorts of questions about animal language and what frogs and ducks might be saying behind our backs.

Theories on how the French got stuck with their nickname range far and wide, and none of them are particularly nasty. Frankish King Clovis of the fifth and sixth centuries chose bees and frogs to decorate royal garb. If that didn't trigger the name, perhaps it came from the 17th century when Paris was surrounded by swampland and the Parisians were known to other French people as frogs.

My personal favorite concerns English Queen Elizabeth I, a known frog-lover, who wrote letters to a childhood sweetheart, later an ambassador to France, whom she addressed "Dearest Frog". Now who can call that contemptuous? For its time, it was nothing less than a term of endearment.

Every once in a while I see a Squirrel helicopter in the sky around Europe and I think, "You missed your chance - you could have been a frog but you're just a common squirrel."

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