Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Etymology of Pepé Le Pew

One of the reasons I have a blog is so that I can share some of the fascinating things I learn during the course of my varied and incessant reading. For example, this: In a book called They Eat Horses, Don't They?: The Truth About the French (which I picked up for a song--3 books for a buck!--at a recent Toronto Public Library book sale), one discovers the origin of Looney Tunes character Pepé Le Pew. As you may recall, Le Pew was an amorous French skunk who sounded a lot like the actor Charles Boyer. As you likely don't know (I know I didn't), the character's pungent aroma accorded with WW2 American GIs' experience of French hygiene (or the distinct--and often stinky--absence thereof):
   Despite the efforts of the US military to defend French standards of hygiene, however, the mud [i.e. the fact that American GIs thought the French didn't smell good because they didn't wash enough] seemed to stick. It is no accident that in 1945 - just as the GIs were returning home - a new Looney Tunes cartoon character appeared on American television screens: Pepé Le Pew. A skunk with a heavy French accent given to strolling around Paris in the springtime filled with thoughts of 'lurve', Pepé's numerous attempts to find a mate are stymied by his rand orour and obdurate refusal to take 'no' for an answer. and - like the Gallic male stereotype - he also spends a lot of time spraying on perfume to try and put his victims off the scent. (His surname, Le Pew, was probably an allusion to the words pooh or phew, a traditional exclamation in response to a disagreeable smell. Hard as it may be to believe, linguists have spent entire careers debating its etymological origins. Some believe it derives from the Latin puteo, meaning to stink; while others maintain it comes from the Indo-European word pu, meaning to rot or decay - as in 'putrid'. The most appealing theory - although, sadly, probably apocryphal - ascribes a Chinese origin to the exclamation, namely the Confuciian saying, "He who fart in church sit in own pew'.) Most French people are blissfully unaware of the true nationality of Pepé Le Pew, since, in the French version of the cartoon, he was dubbed with an Italian accent...
So you mean to say that, in French, Pepé Le Pew sounds a lot like, say, Marcello Mastroianni?

No need to thank me for bringing you this crucial but heretofore obscure bit of info. I do it as a public service.

Update: They Eat Horses, Don't They? mentions another occasion when an American cartoon insult was lost in translation:
The most notorious national slur against the French for their alleged uwillingness to fight derives from Matt G Groening's television cartoon series The Simpsons. In a 1995 episode called 'Round Springfield', the dour Scottish school janitor Groundskeeper Willie - who is unexpectedly saddled with the task of taking a French lesson at Springfield Elementary Schoool - addresses the class with the greeting, 'Bonjour, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys'.
Since the day it was first uttered, the phrase has been endlessly repeated as a staple in the stock arsenal of insults against the French. It became especially popular in 2003, when it was used by the conservative US columnist Jonah Goldberg of the National Review to attack France's opposition to the invasion of Iraq. 
Interestingly, if you mention the phrase to a French person, he or she will look at you blankly. This is because the voice-over was modified to 'cheese-eating monkeys' (singes mangeurs de fromage), when the series was broadcast in France.

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