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Partie IV. Filming the Crime Novel

Crime Films and Lexical Change: Can an Analysis of an Electronic Corpus of Fifteen Crime Films Help Students Understand Semantic Mutations1?

Jean-Louis Vidalenc
p. 185-191


Les mutations de programme sémique représentent une difficulté majeure de l’enseignement de l’anglais à l’université y compris dans les formations de traducteur à Bac+4 et Bac+5. Si des matrices lexicogénétiques comme métaphore et métonymie ont fait l’objet de nombreuses études d’autres composantes comme le substrat puritain des mentalités restent moins connues. Cet article se propose de montrer à partir d’un corpus de quinze scénarios de films noirs, où des termes anglais bien connus sont traduits par des traductions qui ne leur correspondent pas habituellement dans les dictionnaires que ce substrat civilisationnel puritain fonctionne comme élément déclencheur de mutation de programme de sens. Une recherche dans cette direction devrait se révéler bénéfique non seulement dans les formations aux métiers de la traduction mais avoir des prolongements dans une réflexion plus théorique sur l’évolution de la langue.

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Puritanism as a lexicogenetic feature

  • 1  The lecture which developed into this paper was the first in a sequel of three lectures on noir fi (...)
  • 2  We have followed the same approach with different corpora in other papers (cf. references)

1This paper will argue2 that analyzing small size corpora may prove useful in understanding some of the facets of the evolution of English words which may puzzle experienced translators or totally baffle students of English as a second language (sometimes even in postgraduate seminars).

  • 3  We use the term coined by Jean Tournier in his five hundred pages seminal thesis Introduction Desc (...)

2In previous papers we have dealt with linguistic changes in the function of syntactic items and / or shifts in the semantic program of lexical items. Here we will suggest that Puritanism, one well-known feature of the cultural background of speakers of American English, coexists with other lexicogenetic3 features to trigger variations in the semantic programs of known words. The theoretical point is relevant for lexicographers and lexicologists but, since these variations exist in texts before being accounted for in dictionaries, both teachers and students have to cope with these changes for months and sometimes years.

  • 4  It has been suggested that <holy grail> is nowadays more heard and read in contexts of scientific research (AI</holy> (...)

3It is well-known that metaphors and understatements may explain radical changes in the most frequent meanings of known words4 but coexisting factors in evolution have sometimes been underestimated. Here we will discuss how the implicit puritan attitude of a language community may join forces with these metaphors and understatements to create new semantic programs in previously known lexical items.

4French Critics of the genre and crime-writers, – for example François Guérif and Boileau-Narcejac – have often noticed how important this puritan background was in understanding noir. Discussing with students the translation of a crime film often involves decoding the puritan strata in plot, characters and lexical content. It was often noticed that well known English terms, because of this puritan Weltanschaung, had to be translated by French terms which in no dictionary whatsoever were considered as an adequate equivalent.

5Translation studies in undergraduate seminars are often confronted to what we call the Tex Avery Syndrome. Symphony in Slang is built up on scenes where expressions like <to drop in on somebody>, <paint the town red> or <send a cable> are taken literally. Too many students use, even when it sounds absurd, the first translation given in their bilingual dictionary

  • 5  Known as Henry Miller’s publishers. Norman Mailer wrote about the author of Quiet Days in Clichy: (...)

6To illustrate Puritanism as a lexicogenetic force we have selected two words <fuck> and <ass> from the lists made up in the US by the customs authorities to forbid the import of books published by Olympia Press5 and in England by the Director of Public Prosecution in the Lady Chatterley trial in 1961.

  • 6  Saved on 3M 120Mb disks.

7The corpus we have analyzed represents a subset of a larger electronic corpus of some 280 film scripts6. It consists of Assassins, Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Basic Instinct, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, Blue Velvet, LA Confidential, The Big Lebowski, Body of Evidence, Natural Born Killers, Twin Peaks (1&2), Chinatown, Out of Sight, Verdict.

8Most of these can now be downloaded on line. Polanski’s Chinatown is the oldest source (written in 1973), Jackie Brown and The Big Lebowski are the most recent scripts and were written about three years ago (March 1997 for Jackie Brown). The sample is quality biased, we have preferred crime writers (James Ellroy, Ellmore Leonard), directors known for their interest in style (Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers) and other directors appreciated by movie addicts (David Lynch, and Stephen Soderbergh).

9Even though the English used in the dialogues of some of these films would not be approved of in many US suburban communities, it would be absurd to consider that modern language students need not be trained to understand the films being shown in local cinemas.

10One might say that the students who have proven able to translate, in a language lab, twenty minutes of Pulp Fiction in less than an hour are likely to learn to cope with any difficult oral or written text.

11Only a small minority of the current population of third and fourth year students feel they can manage this task. Many seem to suffer from what may be called the Tex Avery syndrome. You may remember one of his better known works Symphony in Slang when expressions like punching cows, to drop in on somebody, up the river or chewing the rag are taken literally and graphically represented in a cartoon. Tex Avery exploited the distance in semantic value between the core meaning or an older meaning of a lexical item and the value immediately understood by a majority of speakers. Many students use spontaneously the first value listed in their dictionary when asked to translate: “We think we got a rat in the house”, “He’s looking at ten years”, and often realize too late their proposal is inadequate. These examples are very close to the lines of Tex Avery’s script.

12Corpora of films represent an interesting tool to diversify the sources of English. Their being situated half way between spoken and written English makes them an interesting standpoint to observe lexical items which have gone beyond the first stage, i.e. being accepted in oral speech by a community and which may find their way into written texts and dictionaries in the foreseeable future.

Film noir and semantic mutations

13Even though this paper’s focus is on puritanism as a lexicogenetic feature it should not be forgotten that other features are also at work in noir.

14In a seminal and unjustly forgotten study, Le Travail et la Langue Robert Lafont has shown how human activities generate both new words and mutations in the semantic programmes of known dictionary entries.

15Ever since the first works of Dashiel Hammett and Earle Stanley Garner it has been obvious that the dialects of detectives and lawyers were bound to contribute more than other occupations to the lexikon of the crime novel. Readers have quickly assimilated lexical items used originally in the police forces like cruiser and prowler (for a police car) and became familiar with expressions like <to flash a badge>. Technical terms from the legal professions have found their way in books and films read and watched by the layman. Even though the legal professions have a tradition of an above average use of latin words, the usual frameworks of lexicogenetics work and when viewing noir films we can hear phrasal verbs coined according to one of the traditional English device of word formation like “The DA is going to file on Rebecca Lawson”, or “Paley has been sworn in”.

16It can also be expected (but this might be a subject for another lecture) that the US attorneys who became suspense writers – John Grisham – or crime writers – Scott Turow, Richard North Patterson or Jeremiah Healey – integrate linguistic and not linguistic– elements of their former occupation into their works.

17These professional dialects may puzzle students as in this example from our corpus (Basic Instinct) where we may observe an infrequent use of work: “A coroner’s man is working the bed”.

18More often crime writers contribute to extend the range of words used by their readers in bringing into everyday usage lexical entries used formerly only in specialists’ journals. The obvious example to quote is <DNA fingerprinting> coined in January 1987 in a research lab at the University of Leicester (GB).

19The F- word is still considered substandard by many speakers and a detailed investigation would require a full scale socio-linguistic study.

  • 7  For example The Big Lebowski (241 occurrences), Reservoir Dogs (00), Goodfellas (190), and Pulp Fi (...)

20<Fuck> is often heard in noir films7 and it can be thought that quite a few writers seem to think its use can contribute to building a "virile" atmosphere or illustrate the linguistic transgression of the underworld.

21Our point here is that in some scripts (Pulp Fiction for instance) less than one per cent the occurrences refer to a sexual act, instead of the expected translation <baiser> viewers often read in subtitles <putain> which in most dictionaries corresponds to <hooker>.

  • 8  C.H. Rolph, ed., The Trial of Lady Chatterley, London, Penguin, 1961.

22Well known examples like “I’m not buying a fucking beer” illustrate the distance between the semantic content which provided the basis for the trial crown v Penguin books in 19608 and the lexical content of what is translated by “foutue” whose sexual origin is lost for most French speakers.

23The context often clarifies potential ambiguities as in “fucking god” where some twenty centuries of monotheism eliminate a possible translation. The dominant religious culture will eliminate a hasty rendering of “What just happened was a fuckin’ miracle”. Most viewers won’t take too literally: “Fuck with me, bitch, even a little bit, you’re gonna get accidentally shot”, but will probably smile when thinking of a possible ambiguity in “I gave SIMPLE FUCKING INSTRUCTIONS”.

24Even in Basic Instinct only a minority of the occurrences of <fuck> (at the most 11 out of 31 occurrences) refer to de facto sexuality. Most of the uses of the f-word in our corpus express de dicto sexuality or are definitely not related to any form of sexuality as in “You don’t fuck another man’s vehicle”, or “Cops tend to notice shit like you’re driving a car drenched in fuckin’ blood”.

25Lexicology and lexicography have to take into account this loss of the basic semantic value of the lexical item, the expression of de facto active sexuality. Instead we seem to have a message from the utterer who situates his utterance outside the field of a predominantly puritan civilization. We would like to suggest that the universe of belief of a language community has gradually altered the semantic program of this word, even if an active minority still uses <fuck> as it was used by D.H. Lawrence.

26This phenomenon of semantic mutation is not limited to the f-word. Another lexical item, ass or arse, listed by the prosecution in the Lady Chatterley trial is often translated in subtitles with no reference whatsoever to <cul>.

27The basic value is far from forgotten by the speaker in “I’m surprised you can walk after the way Burnham chewed your ass out this afternoon”, which might be translated by “Vu ce que l’accusation t’a mis dans les gencives, je suis surpris que tu puisses encore parler”. The French translation expresses the substandard message without any sexual connotation… Since the two protagonists spent the afternoon in court, with a judge and the public present, a too literal rendering would be definitely inadequate.

28The lexical item is used to contribute to a he-man atmosphere in police buildings as in “I don’t need a reason to put your ass in a sling”, which might baffle medical students.

29The loss of the original semantic value <body part> is offset by the gain of a new value which corresponds to the French substandard <mézigues>, <tézigues>.

30In “the cops didn’t try and strangle my ass”, standard anatomical knowledge excludes a too literal translation. The same comment may apply to “Now that’s a hard motherfuckin’ fact of life, but it’s a fact of life your ass is gonna hafta git realistic about”.

31The next example may confirm we are confronted by a kind of metonymy, where a part of the human body stands in fact for the whole person: “You get your ass in trouble, I get your ass out”.

32We shouldn’t forget that the semantic component of the lexical item which gets lost in the process is precisely the one which a significant proportion of the linguistic community found fault with.

33The apparent paradox that in their daily life the protagonists of noir do not adhere to the better known puritan values can easily be explained. As fictional characters they may reject the dominant modes but as individuals they cannot coerce society into adopting transgressive behavior.

34Puritanism as a lexical force may work the other way round. Instead of deleting the semantic components found objectionable in lexical items words not approved of by a significant proportion of the linguistic community, the puritan background may add an "out of bounds" ingredient to words not usually found fault with.

35Understatements of all kinds illustrate this tendency to "graft" "indecent" constituents onto lexical items rarely associated with angry comments from the more prudish fraction of native speakers of English.

36A known example is the use of the word <bathroom> in American English, when Woody Allen’s sister in Crime and Misdemeanors complains about a man she’s just met: “He went to the bathroom on me”.

37Similar “grafts” in noir are often noted when speakers have the law on their heels (to quote Tex Avery). In the example quoted above: “He’s looking at ten years”, <look at> has acquired a new semantic value because the prison is not to be mentioned in polite society. The same comment may apply to: “He’s been in before”, “He wanted to bring Foley in”, or to other synonyms for prison like a federal lock up or federal time or county time.

38What listeners might find objectionable may vary. In “You didn’t think I was rolling out of here naked” / “tu ne pensais pas que j’allais sortir sans mon artillerie”, <nudity> – and rightly so– looks less offensive than firearms.

39Metaphors are often called upon to widen the scope of the English Lexicon when a non offensive word stands by for a lexical item found unsuitable by the speaker. When the unmentionable is police corruption, a detective says “a bad egg”; when it’s police informers an outlaw says “I’ got ratted on”.

40Some speakers have become so fond of this potential creativity of new semantic programs that they use this imbrication of understatement and metaphor when codes not really required: “They have trapped her line and hung a wire” / “Ils ont mis son téléphone sur écoutes”.

41In this case we can say that the enjoyment of writer and public does compensate the difficulties found by the not so active students.

42We will end this discussion by emphasizing that Corpus Linguistics has often pinpointed gradual changes which had hardly been noticed in daily usage because the silent majority of native speakers had adapted to a de facto evolution of the lexikon. In this case noir as a genre shows that in many cases, lexical items once classified within substandard English, could be withdrawn from the list.

43It’s interesting to note that in natural languages the human beings who speak the language set the rules. What they have in their mind proves more important than the abstract mechanisms of word formation even if they master the complex forces at work when metaphors after having been perceived as such for some time eventually find their way into dictionaries .Other languages and civilizations have provided examples of interaction of ideology and lexicogenetics.

44Some may regret that, hardly half a century after the Lady Chatterley Trial, the words found offensive by the Director of Public Prosecutions, statistically no longer respect, in British or American English, the semantic program they had some time ago. In language as in biology, evolution is a fact of life.

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Adamczewski & Delmas, Grammaire Linguistique de l’Anglais, Paris, Armand Colin, 1982.

Delmas et al, Faits de langue en Anglais, Paris, Dunod, 1993.

Lafont, Robert, Le Travail et la Langue, Paris, Flammarion, 1978.

Joly, André & O’Kelly Dairine, Grammaire Systématique de l’Anglais, Paris, Nathan, 1990.

Souesmes, Jean-Claude, Grammaire Anglaise en Contexte, Gap, Ophrys, 1992.

Tournier, Jean, Introduction Descriptive à la Lexicogénétique de l’Anglais Contemporain, Genève, Champion Slatkine, 1985.

Vidalenc, Jean-Louis, Analyse de quatre discours (sciences, histoire des sciences, romans contemporains, langue des films) applications à l’enseignement à l’université (mémoire de synthèse de travaux (582 pages) Université Paris X Nanterre, 6 mai 1995)

---, Effet de came et métaphore, application d’un outil lexicogénétique à l’enseignement de la terminologie et de la syntaxe. Hommage à Jean Tournier, Presses de l’université de Franche Comté, 1998.

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1  The lecture which developed into this paper was the first in a sequel of three lectures on noir films and linguistic evolution (Paris 11/99, Dijon 02/00, Aix 04/00). A synthesis of these talks was published in French in March 2001: Anglais de spécialité, objet de recherche et point d’appui pour l’enseignement,ASP, 2001.

2  We have followed the same approach with different corpora in other papers (cf. references)

3  We use the term coined by Jean Tournier in his five hundred pages seminal thesis Introduction Descriptive à la Lexicogénétique de l’Anglais Contemporain, Genève, Champion Slatkine, 1985. We may believe more than he does in the impact of human work and cultural background on neology but his work has been a constant stimulation for some fifteen years. Among other French sources we will mention Henri Béjoint and Philippe Thoiron (université Louis Lumière Lyon II).

4  It has been suggested that <holy grail> is nowadays more heard and read in contexts of scientific research (AIDS or BSE for example) than in academic discussions of the Arthurian legends.

5  Known as Henry Miller’s publishers. Norman Mailer wrote about the author of Quiet Days in Clichy: “Sure, Henry Miller sounds like he’s having fun, but he had to cross three thousand miles of Atlantic before saying “cunt””.

6  Saved on 3M 120Mb disks.

7  For example The Big Lebowski (241 occurrences), Reservoir Dogs (00), Goodfellas (190), and Pulp Fiction (185). The statistics on the use of the f-word are available on

8  C.H. Rolph, ed., The Trial of Lady Chatterley, London, Penguin, 1961.

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Jean-Louis Vidalenc, « Crime Films and Lexical Change: Can an Analysis of an Electronic Corpus of Fifteen Crime Films Help Students Understand Semantic Mutations? »Sillages critiques, 6 | 2004, 185-191.

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Jean-Louis Vidalenc, « Crime Films and Lexical Change: Can an Analysis of an Electronic Corpus of Fifteen Crime Films Help Students Understand Semantic Mutations? »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2009, consulté le 25 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-Louis Vidalenc

Professeur de linguistique, Université Bordeaux 3

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