“Ce plaid est vachement doux,” marveled my friend Christophe as he fondled my latest purchase. My new blanket is cowly soft? Huh?
Having recently bought an apartment in Paris, in a neighborhood where English is rarely spoken, I have no choice but to finally and totally immerse myself in the language and culture. After all, that was the point of buying a place, right? While my high school French was woefully lacking, I do feel I’m starting to get the hang of it. Or so I thought, until someone threw me a vachement.
“Did you just say ‘cowly’?” I asked Christophe in English. “How is my blanket soft like a cow?” Are French cows known to be very soft? Who measures this? It would be just like the French to have an académie de douceur, specifically created to find words that describe degrees of softness. Is there a kittenly soft? A baby-chickly soft?
“But no!” my friend said, through his laughter, at the poor, stupide américaine. “Vachement, eet means ‘very much’!”
“Oh, so it’s like beaucoup.”
“No, not like beaucoup.”
“But beaucoup means ‘very much.’”
“It’s not the same.”
My friend was quite emphatic that “vachement” was a specific kind of “very much,” but could not explain when to use it, versus très or beaucoup, or where such a curious word came from. After polling half a dozen Frenchmen and receiving half a dozen explanations, I was vachement confused.
Those wicked French cows
They say you can learn a lot about a people from their language, so I suppose in France, a country famous for its cheese, it’s not terribly surprising a word like “cowly” could creep in. But when did it creep in, I wondered? And what did it really mean? I was determined to wrap myself around this one utterly. (Or should I say “udderly”?)
Poking around the Internet, I found definitions such as, “absolutely” and “truly,” but also, “very,” “oddly” and “badly.” I began to understand my friend’s inability to define the word with precision. And so, to find a more decisive explanation, I turned to the source: Vaches Actus—Le Site Qui Fait Meuh (“the Site that Moos”). What I uncovered was vachement interessant…
Oh là là super terrible!
Around 1880, the word vache—cow—became slang for “evil” or “severe.” It seems that French cows are crankier than their U.S. cousins, perhaps from being overmilked for all that cheese. By the turn of the century, vache had developed into a derogatory term for a wicked or vengeful person: “You cow, you”—similar in vehemence but not quite the same as the British expression (which is reserved for women). Then, in about 1930, the cows got a reprieve, and vachement evolved into the kinder, quantitative meaning: “a lot; so very.” Vaches Actus didn’t say how this evolution came to be, but I’m guessing it was during the Roaring Twenties, perhaps at the legendary brasserie La Coupole on Boulevard Montparnasse (it’s still there!), when, after much champagne, someone—Sartre or Man Ray or Simone de Beauvoir?—uttered something like, “Gawd, that is wickedly mahvelous!” Et voilà, “wicked” came to mean “very.” This is not an official explanation, you understand, but it’s vachement plus exacte than the one my French friend offered.
Although Christophe was actually quite right when he said vachement was not the same as beaucoup. Like many native speakers, he couldn’t explain it clearly because vachement is one of those words that conveys emotion as well as degree, and that is often hard to define exactly. You just have to feel it. Beaucoup is an observation; vachement is a superlative. Christophe didn’t say, “This blanket is very soft”; he said, “This blanket is ooh-la-la-super-duper-I-can’t-believe-how-much soft.” The kind of soft that can’t be expressed by just any old quantitative word. You’d need a special word, a sort of invented word—like vachement.
Our thanks to Jean-Luc Benayoun of the United Nations French Verbatim Service for the audio pronunciation.