The Cajun language is a mixture of ancient and modern French, some Franglais, as well as many words that are unique to the region of Louisiana where our Canadian ancestors originally settled. My new book, “Stone Motel – Memoirs of a Cajun Boy,” has lots of words and phrases whose meanings might prove a little challenging for non-Cajuns. This very selective glossary includes terms I use in the book as well as some I include to help demystify and add context to my story.
Bataille (Bah-tie) – also known as “War,” this is a two-person card game where each player picks the top card from his overturned stack and the one with the highest valued card keeps both cards, with the object being to collect the most cards.
Boudin (Boo-dan) – rice sausage made with pork, onions, scallions, garlic, and other spices.
Bouillie au lait (Boo-yoh-lay) – a custard made of milk, flour, and sugar. Momma had bouillie au lait regularly growing up in the Depression.
Bourre (Boo-ray) – a card game where the object is to take a majority of the ‘tricks’ in each hand to claim the pot. When we were not playing canasta or bataille, we played bourre.
Brigand (Bree-gon) – trouble-maker, bandit, sneaky. Mémère called us brigand when we were being a pain in the ass.
Canaille (Kah-nie) – similar in meaning to “brigand”: mischievous; sneaky, wily.
Cher (shair) – dear; expensive.
Coonass (Koon-ass) – slang for authentic Cajun. I don’t personally know any Cajun who doesn’t consider this to be a term of endearment, but apparently there are some who find the term offensive. We will not invite them to our next boucherie.
Couillon (Koo-yon) – crazy; foolish; funny. I got called couillon quite a bit growing up.
Courtbouillon (Koo-bee-yon) – spicy tomato-based soup or stew made with fish fillets, onions, peppers, and garlic. I like to add new potatoes to my recipe for this classic Cajun dish.
Écrevisse (A-kree-veece) – crawfish.
Étouffée (A-too-fay) – smothered; a style of cooking in which the food is ‘smothered’ by being cooked while covered.
Fais do-do (Fay-doe-doe) – party with live music and dancing. “Do-do” is Cajun slang for the term “dormir,” meaning “to sleep,” so the term would translate roughly to “make sleep.” Some say this idiom comes from the idea that a good party will wear you out and give you a good night’s sleep.
Frisson (Free-son) – chill; goose-bump. “Mais, that song gives me the frissons, cher.”
Gombo Févi (Gumbo fi-vee) – okra; term most often used in reference to okra gumbo, a soup with Creole/African origins, where okra is used to thicken the broth (sometimes with and sometimes without the addition of roux).
Gris-Gris (Gree-gree) – good luck charm; positive voodoo. I have lately taken to sending gris-gris online through the ether for people who need to be cheered up or encouraged.
Honte (Haunt) – shame; embarrassment. “I’m so honte,” is a popular phrase among teenaged Cajun girls.
Lagniappe (Lan-yap) – a little something extra; a surprise. There’s never a price for lagniappe, and that’s the point.
Mais (May) – But, or ‘Well, then…’
Maque Choux (Mock-shoo) – fresh kernels of corn sautéed in onions, garlic, peppers, and spices, then cooked uncovered, to caramelize the kernels. My Tante Versie (we called her simply, “T’tante”) made the best version of this I’ve ever tasted.
Maringouin (Mar-en-gwain) – mosquito. You can’t be from south Louisiana and not know this word.
Mirliton (Mer-lee-ton) – a south Louisiana pear-shaped green vegetable that is cooked similarly to squash. One of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes is a seafood dressing made with mirlitons. Slurp. (known as “chayote,” or “vegetable pear” in other cultures.)
Misère (Mee-zair) – misery; trouble. My grandfather, Dejean, was a traiteur who had a gift for removing misère from people who sought out his healing hands.
Nanan (Na-nan) – godmother.
Nonc (Nonk) – uncle. Derived from the joining of “Mon (my)” and “Oncle (uncle).”
Paillasse (Pie-oss) – straw or corn husk mattress; scarecrow; clown. I didn’t know my Uncle Paillasse’s real name till I grew up (it was Andrew). We called him “Uncle Pie” mostly – and he was so named because his pals in grammar school said he looked like a clown.
Pâquer (Pock) – to hit boiled eggs together in a competition to see which egg breaks the other. An Easter tradition in our house.
Pâques (Pock) – Easter. Go figure.
Parrain (Pah-ran) – godfather. I only met my parrain once – apparently he was a much older cousin. The one time I did meet him, he gave me a silver 50-cent piece.
Pauvre bête (Pov bet) – poor thing. My grandmother, Ortense, said this a lot. In other places in the South a similar sentiment is, “Bless your heart” and it’s not always as well-meaning as it sounds.
Penser-donc (Ponce-don) – think about that!
Perdu (Pear-do) – lost. Pain perdu translates to “lost bread,” more commonly known as French toast.
Pistache (Pee-stash) – peanut; small. A popular nickname for small children.
Poil (Pwell) – body hair; pubic hair. In Eunice, Louisiana, where I grew up, one of our beloved town characters was called this because his hair was a Brillo® pad of tight curls.
Putain (Pu-tan) – prostitute; bitch. Fils de putain translates to “son of a bitch.” You don’t want to be on the receiving end of this term.
Quoi faire or Que faire (Kuh-fair) – Why? More commonly used than “pour-quoi” in Louisiana.
Rice Dressing/Dirty Rice – Cooked rice blended with ground pork and/or beef that has been sautéed with green peppers, scallions, onions, garlic, and celery.
Rougarou (Roo-garoo) – werewolf. Also “loupgarou.” The subject of what is perhaps the most famous local legend in the bayous of Louisiana. The tataille in the featured image for this post is a rendering of a rougarou.
Sauce Piquant (Sauce Pee-kont) – thick, sharp sauce made with meat plus a variety of peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes that are highly seasoned with herbs and slow-cooked/simmered for hours.
Saute crapaud (Sawt Krap-o) – leapfrog; game. Momma used to sing us a folksong that had this unfortunate frog jumping because it’s tail was burning.
Tante (Tont) – aunt. My two favorite aunts growing up were Taunt T’tell and Taunt T’eva (Estelle and Eva). It is very common to refer to an aunt generically as, “T’taunt” (Tah-tont).
Tasso (Tah-so) – seasoned pork shoulder, smoked like jerky, used to flavor dishes.
Tataille (Tah-tie) – scary creature; monster. (also see Rougarou, above)
Tonnerre – thunder. The most common use of this term is in the idiom, “Tonnerre mes chiens!” – which is saying a lot to mean simply, “Darn!” or in today’s terms, “WTF?!”
Tracas (Trah-Kah) – trouble; problem; obsession. Mémère says my sisters Gilda and Glenda made a lot of tracas for our momma.
Traiteur (Tray-ter) – healer; faith healer. My grandfather DeJean in Ville Platte, Louisiana, was a faith healer. Sadly, he died before he could pass down his gift to someone who would take over after he was gone.
Trinity – The seasoning mixture prevalent in Louisiana cuisine: Onions, bell peppers, and celery. Also known in French as Mirepoix. For my trinity, I use garlic and celery seeds in place of fresh celery because I don’t love cooked celery.
Va-t-et-vient (Vah-teh-vee-an) – comings and goings; bustling. I love this expression, even though I didn’t hear it much growing up except in reference to Mardi Gras day.
PS: Here are two very useful, brief resources for more on the Cajun language:
LSU and Louisiana Tourism Press Room.
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