I would never try to usurp or upstage my sister’s quest to be the French-speaking sibling in my family of origin. I’m happy to concede that status to her.

One interesting fallout from her interest in Francophone culture is that I’ve started noticing (paying attention?) to how often French words, or derivatives of the language, pepper our own. Take for instance my recent obsession with the band Pavement, detailed three weeks ago here at the JBE, and their song, Embassy Row. I mean, is there a more clever mid-90s slacker songwriter than Stephen Malkmus? Literate, witty, and if you pay attention, you pick up interesting tidbits, including a French word, or two.

The debonair Stephen Malkmus.

The debonaire Stephen Malkmus.

The song begins with a slow intro and then, these three lines:

Where is the savoir? Where is the savoir? (savior?)
He’s not here right now
Where is the savoir? Where is the savoir-faire?

I forgive readers if you’re a bit rusty regarding your high school French—we’re in similar boats—because so am I. Okay? Now on to today’s French lesson.

Savoir-faire connotes the “ability to say or do the appropriate or graceful thing in social situations.” Someone with savoir-faire in spades might even be considered “debonaire,” or possibly, urbane.

In ruminating about that word and its meaning, I remember the effort and energy I put into exhibiting a combination of savoir-faire, cut with a homespun folksiness that once played well in places like Maine. From what I’ve been observing these days, it appears that whether it’s boorish politicians, or the overly-important Twitterati dispensing their tweet “vomit,” savoir-faire is now out of favor. In fact, being crude, crass, even moronic is what it takes to curry cache in these Google-infected days.

Oh, and one other caveat about my previous thoughts on the matter—be sure that what you espouse is “bien pensant” (right thinking), and you’ll never fall out of favor with those that feel it’s their place to police the speech and thoughts of others.

Le dictionnaire

Le dictionnaire

2 thoughts on “Savoir-faire

  1. It’s funny, but whenever I’ve seen the words “bien pensant” my brain always registered “peasant” or instead of “pensant.” Then I’d think “good peasant.” Thank you, Mr. JBE, for filling this small hole in my Swiss cheese brain.

  2. Malkmus’ lines, though, don’t work as music. He is playing with the cognates “savoir” and “savior” (or “saviour”), which he uses later in the song. They work on paper because the reader sees the swapping vowels, but when sung “say-vee-or” and “sah-vwah” are only similar in consonant patterns, and even that’s a stretch.

    I get the impression that even though he uses very literal references to Embassy Row, he’s really using it as a metaphor for something else, a sort of gentility that is no longer with us.

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