The Secret Slang of Paris’ Butchers

One of my favourite things about writing historical fiction is the research. To me, it’s like detective work: inevitably, I end up taking deep dives into a particular subject. (I just spent two days reading about the changing judicial system and socio-economic make-up of the Paris police force at the start of the Second Empire and will probably end up writing “he was a policeman”). Research is an essential part of the writing process for me, not least because I often get my best ideas for plot and character (not to mention future novels) while researching.

This month I ended up taking a fascinating detour into argot – French slang – and particularly types of vernacular native to Paris. And so I discovered louchébem; the secret slang of Paris butchers.

Louchébem is just one form of the many types of argot that have existed in Paris; it is a variant form of a slang called largonji, and similar to javanais and verlan, in which individual words are disguised by using a set of rules. For example, in javanais, [av] is inserted after every consonant followed by a vowel: “bonjour” thus becomes “bavonjavour”. Louchébem substutites [l] for the consonant at the start of the word: the original consonant is them re-attached at the end of the word, followed by an em/ème suffix. “Boucher” (butcher) thus becomes “louchébem”.


Les Halles centrales de Paris, construites sous le règne de Napoléon III. 1862, Baltard, Callet

In Les Misérables (1862) Victor Hugo called argot “the language of the dark” and “the language of misery”, and like all slang, louchébem had its ties to the underworld. Originating some-time during the mid-nineteeth century, some sources claim that louchébem was invented by inmates at Brest prison, though it was mostly spoken in the stalls, alleyways, bars and cafes around Les Halles: the enormous food market that was the setting for Émile Zola’s 1873 novel Le Ventre de Paris “The Belly of Paris”.

Les Halles itself was a liminal place, by turns seedy, glamorous, luxurious and cutthroat, where societal lines were necessarily blurred; among the plenty was great poverty, and prostitution thrived in the surrounding streets. It was in this tight-knit world of commerce in all its forms that louchébem thrived. A cross between a type of cant and jargon, designed to be unintelligible to outsiders while using the specialised vocabulary of a profession, it was spoken almost exclusively by the city’s butchers, but due to close proximity, many of the other vendors and workers understood it well. For example, the “larçonguesse” (garçons) in the “listrobems” (bistrots) that surrounded Les Halles were known to speak louchébem to the butchers who came in after their shifts, carrying their “lobékesse” (gobbets) of meat for the chefs to cook.

Postcard showing Les Halles, 1900.

Louchébem was spoken among the butchers and vendors of Les Halles until the 1950s, and was used by members of the Parisian Resistance during the Nazi Occupation. Apparently, although not as widely known these days, it is still spoken by some workers in the meat industry. Some of the words have even crossed into common use in French, for example the word “loufoque” (“crazy”).

Anyway, here’s a short glossary of louchébem, to get you started:

Lonjourbem, ça va lienbem?” = Bonjour, ça va bien? = Hello, how are you?

larlépem” = parlé = talk

lijonpem” = “pigeon”

lardonpem” = pardon = excuse me?

lerchem” = cher = expensive

lortefeuillepem” = portefeuille = wallet

A lotvem” = à votre santé = to your health / cheers!

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The Confectioner’s Tale Abroad

I always love receiving book-post, and last week brought two very exciting book-post packages. Both were to do with the arrival of The Confectioner’s Tale in different countries, this time Italy and the USA!

First up is the the Italian version, a lovely hardback edition released last week by Piemme as:

Una deliziosa pasticceria a Parigi

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This is actually my first ever hardback to be published so it holds a special place in my heart. Also, they’ve done a brilliant job on the print quality, with the cover boards printed beneath the dust jacket. At the end of last month, there was a blog tour for the book, so if you speak or read Italian, or are just interested, then details are below. Thanks Piemme!

blogtour deliziosa pasticceria ok

Next, but certainly no less exciting was the arrival of proof copies of the US edition of The Confectioner’s Tale from St Martin’s Press! It’s also due to be published in hardback in September 2016 and I can’t wait to see the finished copies. In the meantime, I’ll have to be content with these exclusive proofs:

The Confectioner's Tale US

TCT is also included in the free sampler Macmillan have produced for their autumn releases, which you can download from NetGalley or Edelweiss. I’ll also be holding a giveaway of some proof copies over the next week or two, so keep an eye out for that.

Next up, the German edition of TCT, entitled Die Tochter des Patissiers, which is due to be released by Bastei Luebbe in, oh, a week’s time! Exciting! More on that then.

The Confectioner’s Tale… en français!

Oh my giddy aunt it’s been so long since I updated on here. Mea culpa! My only excuse is that I’ve been hard at work on a brand new novel, which is tentatively scheduled for publication June 2016. More as that develops… exciting! (The team at Transworld have been dropping tantalising hints about cover designs).

If you’d like to have a guess about when and where the new book is set, feel free to go and take a look at the Pinterest board I’ve been building to keep track of my visual research. (I do this for all of my books)

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In the meantime, I’m delighted to announce that The Confectioner’s Tale has been published in French by City Editions as Le Portrait de l’oubli. I’m especially impressed by their undeniably sassy cover design. Thank you City! There have been some lovely reviews already, so I’m relieved and very pleased that French readers are enjoying it.

One French reviewer recently commented that reading the book allowed them to escape the terrible events of 13th November for a few hours, and also reminded them why they loved Paris so much as a city, despite everything that has happened. Needless to say I was incredibly humbled and touched to hear this. I was also reminded of how important fiction can be; not just to entertain, but to sustain us, to feed our imaginations, to let us inside another person’s head for a few hours… to empathise with what we find there. If I’ve been able to give comfort to just one person with my writing – the way I’ve taken comfort in books in the past – I’ll be more than happy, I’ll be honoured.

L x