In a 1640 dictionary of linguistic curiosities, the royal interpreter Antoine Oudin gives definitions of a number of peculiar expressions for the benefit of foreigners seeking to master French, including the following (marked with an asterisk to denote that it should be handled with care):
* en Papagosse où les chiens chient la poix. i. en un lieu inconnu. vulg.
[* in Papeligosse where dogs shit tar, i.e. in an unknown place. vulgar]
The imaginary land of Papagosse, aka Papeligosse, is rendered in Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 Dictionary of the French and English Tongues as ‘the country of the butterflies’. Oudin’s definition is undoubtedly right, since this place is indeed unknown, but it rather misses the joke.
In fact, this curiosity comes from a nonsense speech we have already encountered by the comedian known as Bruscambille, which also features frogs spitting out cooked and stuffed geese and pregnant women doing impossible things.
In addition to being a piece of nonsense, the phrase contains a miniature tongue-twister ‘les chiens chient’ (similarly, in another speech, Bruscambille says he has been sent off to ‘chasser les vaches aux champs’ [literally, to hunt cows in the fields]) – doubtless obvious to the original audience, these elocutionary acrobatics become blink-and-you-miss-it on the printed page.
Antoine Oudin had Bruscambille’s speeches on his desk when compiling his dictionary – quite what his putative readership made of such expressions, or whether any non-French speaker dropped them into conversation down the tavern in mid-seventeenth-century Paris to impress the locals, has been lost in the mists of time.
The fact that Oudin picked up this supposed saying shows how Bruscambille’s speeches in general, and his nonsense in particular, provided rich pickings for anyone interested in unusual phrases. From this perspective, nonsense is a kind of linguistic laboratory for producing arresting imagery and expressions, which in turn may explain why Dominic Hills has returned to the brief extract from which this phrase is taken for his latest print ‘où les chiens chient la poix’ [where dogs shit tar]: