One hazard of travel in France is underfoot in villages, towns and cities: la merde, literally “the merde,” dog dung, infamously an aspect of life in the country. So much is this so that in English, the word merde, from the French and meaning dung, usually connotes an unlucky event in France. That’s both wrong and right.
It’s wrong because merde is an English word of long standing, having been first used in 1477 by poet and alchemist Thomas Norton in his treatise “Ordinall of Alchemy.” Through the centuries, alchemists apparently found that they couldn’t make gold from pooch poop, so merde fell into disuse in alchemy and now is mostly a literary word in English. It’s right because merde survived in French in colloquial mentions of excrement: “Shit happens,” in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, became la merde passe in French translation.
In everyday usage today, la merde principally means dog dung. That prominence comes from prevalence, as statistics imply. The numbers mound peaks in Paris, where 200,000 dogs leave some 16 tons of dung on the city’s streets every day, a hazard that each year causes serious injuries to some 650 pedestrians who slip on dog droppings.
Luckily, the nuisance is subsiding, thanks in part to political response to public disgust. The first major assault came in the mid-1980s, understandably in Paris, which had the biggest problem. Mayor Jacques Chirac launched a fleet of poop patrol motorbikes supplied by JCDecaux, the French outdoor advertising giant also known for public bike schemes and street toilets. Each motorbike was equipped with a purpose-built vacuum device called a caninette that sucked up a dropping and disinfected the underlying surface in one operation. Fleet operation was a success. JCDecaux went on to implement similar fleets in other cities. Jacques Chirac went on to become President of France (1995-2007). And the word caninette became an entry in “Petit Robert,” the definitive desk dictionary of the French language.
Across the country, cities, towns and villages implemented various precautions, including dog toilets and restricted dog access to parks, with varying degrees of success. The trend now is toward high-tech, led by the city of Toulouse, one of the hubs of the European aerospace industry and home of Airbus, the European competitor to Boeing. In the Toulouse system now being implemented, wardens equipped with GPS-enabled Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) roam the streets and parks. Upon spotting a nuisance — a dog dropping, a dead animal, graffiti, an illegally parked car, whatever — the warden uses the PDA to take a geo-tagged photo that is transmitted to the appropriate public department so cleanup may be initiated.
Despite the efficiency of the new public services, everyone admits that true progress depends on dog owners changing their habits. So municipalities throughout the country have mounted anti-poop information campaigns and now offer dog dropping pick-up kits given away free to users from dispensers having easily-understood pictorial instructions and dedicated trash cans close at hand. Two popular brands are the Pince à crotte® (“turd tongs”), a kit of biodegradable cardboard tongs and a suitably tough paper bag for disposing of the picked-up droppings and soiled tongs, and the Toutounet (“doggie-neat”), a plastic bag large enough to insert a hand to grasp the droppings and then turn inside-out and tie to seal for disposal.
Progress is noticeable across France. The merde is on the wane. But the vulgar taint of the word remains. So it’s not part of polite conversation or of legislation dealing with it: in December 1998, when the nuisance of dog dung on the sidewalks and streets of the country was debated in the French Senate, the senators spoke of déjections canines. That term of two words is almost understandable in English, as dejection is the medical term for a BM. That la merde has gone mainstream in a politically correct cloak may be a signal of its further demise.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.
Ville de Cabestany artwork Civic administrators know that the merde can be defeated only if the public’s pooch poop practices change. So they publish pamphlets and placards calling for greater propriety, often in Bande dessinée (“comic strips”), a literature form so popular in France that it’s considered to be the ninth art. An example is the placard published by the town of Cabestany, a suburb of the city of Perpignan, reading in translation:
A simple gesture to preserve our sidewalks and green spaces
1 Put your hand in a plastic bag and turn it inside out.
2. Pick up the dog dropping,
3. and then toss it in the nearest trashcan. Easy!