Nicknames & New Year's Eve singing


...Ward A. Dorrance had an opportuntiy to spend a summer in the early 1930s in the town of Old Mines, the site of Mine Renault and Mine a Breton. Of the 600 families in the Catholic parish at that time, ninety percent still used French as the domestic tongue. In the village, about forty miles west of Ste. Genevieve, it was at that late date possible to gain a glimpse of life as it must have existed 200 years earlier in Ste. Genevieve.

The men worked in the mines and fields Mondays and Tuesdays from down until dark, in hopes of getting enough work done by noon Wednesday so they could take the next four days off. If so, they would play cards, dance, sing or gather together to see who could spin the tallest tales.

Their lightheartedness was reflected in the nicknames they gave each other and for other towns, many of them unprintable. Ste. Genevieve, as has been said, was nicknamed Misère-miserable. Kaskaskia was Pouilleux-lousy. Cape Girardeau was L'anse a la Graisse-greasy cove. Carondelet, where one of the attractions was a race track, was Vide-Pouche-empty pocket. St. Louis was Paincourt-short of bread.

Nicknames were especially popular with the settlers. One of the aged Old Mines storytellers was nicknamed Gros Vaisse, and the readers may look that up, since this is intended to be a family book. These names were not used behind a person's back-they were used openly and still are. Those who bear them would think something was wrong if they were called by their legal name.

The custom persists in Ste. Genevieve today. There is Punkin' Basler, Fuclos La Rose, Horse Maurice, Flakes Bahr, Toothpick Bollinger, Possum Grass, Beck Basler, Bigfoot Basler (and his son, Young Bigfoot Basler), and an entire family bearing the names of Izzy, Dizzy, Nuts, Boats, and Nooney. The prominent Sexauer family includes men nicknamed Guinea, Sleepy, Funny, and Grandpa. One man has his nickname, "Boob," painted on his mailbox and listed in the Ste. Genevieve telephone directory. Some of those name are attached to the town's leading citizens.

The national insults were plentiful, particularly after the French population was augmented by those from other national origins. There was the Blue Bellied Yankee - with "land so poor his belly turned blue." And the pawpaw Frenchmen, who had to "live off pawpaws in the summer and 'possums in the winter." A man's wife was the "old lady," a term accepted by both sexes. After the arrival of the Germans, a fight could be precipitated simply by shouting, "Damn the Deutch!"

People found their way around not by following marked highways, but by knowing the hollows. Each one had its name. They still do, and any good Ste. Genevieve County farmer can rattle them off one by one - Blue Jug Hollow, Snell Hollow, Red Barn Hollow, Bowes Hollow, and others.

The pronunciation of the "Missouri French" was rugged at best. When Americans and Germans applied their influence it was all but unintelligible. Fourche Du Clos (Bloomsdale) became Fusch Da Clew. Bois Brute Bottom became Bob Rudy Bottom. Isle Du Bois became, of all things, Zillaboy. Aux Arcs became Ozarks...

La Guignolée

One of the most colorful customs in North America - La Guignolée - was brought to the Middle Valley and Ste. Genevieve by the French. It survives today only in isolated sections of rural France and Canada and in Ste. Genevieve. It was revived in the 1970s in old Cahokia.

In the old days, the young men of the village went from house to house on New Year's Eve dressed in outlandish costumes, dancing a shuffling little step and singing a song to the accompaniment of two or three fiddles. The music, due to erratic tempo variations and a lack of voicing, would be all but impossible to set on paper. It has strong Gregorian overtones and probably has come down from the middle ages almost intact.

During La Guignolée, the performers, blacked as Negroes or Browned as Indians, would go from house to house begging food, while they would store for a banquet on Twelfth Night. At the banquet the young men took slices of a cake into which one bean had been baked. The man who got the bean was entitled to takea girl of his choice to the ball which followed.

The custom continues today in Ste. Genevieve. The singers are content to be invited into the various homes on their itinerary for a drink. Native Frenchmen have heard recordings of the Ste. Genevieve La Guignolie singers and have been unable to understand a single word. This probably is because the lustiest of the performers today are German and can't comprehend a word of French themselves. But they sing La Guignolie anyway. Tradition is tradition in Ste. Genevieve.


Excerpts quoted from p 36-40 in:
G.M. Franzwa, The Story of Old Ste Genevieve,
An Account of an Old French Town in Upper Louisiana: Its People and their Homes.
1973, sixth edition 1998, Tuczon AZ, The Patrice Press, ISBN 1-880397-24-2

Created 2020-10-30
This page is part of an anthology about Missouri French
© Roger Thijs, Euro-Support, Inc.