An Ethics Alarms Quote Verification Special Report: “Jacques Brel And ‘The Color Of Goose Shit’”

Guest post by Thomas D. Fuller

[Some background is in order before getting to Tom’s essay. Twice in recent days Ethics Alarms has cited the quote, attributed to the late Belgian singer, song-writer, actor and philos0pher Jacques Brel,  “If you leave it to them they will crochet the world the color of goose shit.” I had referenced the quote before, and Ethics Alarms has a category called “The Jacques Brel” reserved for those officious, censorious, miserable people who seem determined to leech all of the joy out of life. After the latest reference, esteemed commenter Arthur in Maine wrote me off-site to ask for the source of the quote, since he couldn’t find it. Indeed, when I Googled the quote, the only source listed was…me. Ethics Alarms. Now I feared that I was passing along “misinformation.” Can’t have that! 

I have the good fortune to have friend of over 50 years, Tom Fuller, who is a dedicated, one might even say “fanatic,” quotation investigator. He was a credited researcher for the superb “Yale Book of Quotations,” and has commented on Ethics Alarms regarding other quotes mentioned here occasionally. I asked him to do that voodoo that he do so well on the alleged Brel quote, which he remembered from the same source where I first heard it, the Sixties revue “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” Tom generously agreed.

As an aside, I’ve been trying to persuade Tom to launch a blog on the fascinating topic of quotes, and if you enjoy his essay as much as I do, please encourage him.

I’ll have some additional observations after the post.]

***

Introduction

One of the most memorable lines in the 1968 musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris – indeed, it is often the only line that sticks in viewers’ minds – is:

“Jacques Brel says, ‘If you leave it to them they will crochet the world the color of goose shit.’”

Jacques Brel (Belgian songwriter and actor, 1929-1978) wrote the music and lyrics to all the songs in this piece, but the “book” (and therefore, apparently, this line) was written by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman.  The line in question appears in the script between the songs “Bachelor’s Dance” and “Timid Frieda”, but does not seem to relate directly to the lyrics or sense of either song.  (See here.)

The question is:  Did Jacques Brel really say this, and if so, where?

The “color of goose shit”

First, a bit of background. “The color of goose shit” is an English translation of the French expression “caca d’oie”, which is used to denote a color somewhere in the greenish-chartreuse-mustard-yellow spectrum, akin to khaki.  If you read French, you can read a discussion of the term and its history (it dates back to the 17th Century) in the French version of Wikipedia. This entry suggests that the term is used primarily in the fashion world, and by implication is not offensively scatological.  You can verify the existence and meaning of the term here, for example, and here as well, where some native French speakers have some fun discussing the whole thing.  There is a French children’s book about a llama of this color:

Brel’s use of the phrase

In all probability, Blau and Shuman derived this line from the lyrics of Brel’s 1959 song “La Dame Patronesse” (“The Lady Patroness”). Tellingly, the translators at this linked site chose to leave the phrase in its original French, suggesting that the literal translation has no meaning in English.The verse in which it appears is:

Pour faire une bonne dame patronnesse
Mesdames tricotez tout en couleur caca d’oie
Ce qui permet le dimanche à la grand-messe
De reconnaître ses pauvres à soi,
Ce qui permet le dimanche à la grand-messe
De reconnaître ses pauvres à soi.

or,

 To be a good patroness
Ladies, knit only in caca d’oie
Which will allow you, at Sunday Mass
To recognise your own poor crowd
Which will allow you, at Sunday Mass
To recognise your own poor crowd

You can read the lyrics to the whole song and try to divine for yourself what Brel meant.  As good a shot at this as any is this online master’s degree thesis: at pp. 39-47, which says as much as anyone probably wants to hear about this song.

For our purposes, it is enough to know that Brel never wrote the ambiguous “If you leave it up to them”.  It seems very likely that Blau and Shuman fixed on Brel’s use of the “goose shit” term as something that would jar starkly in the context of an English-language theater piece, and that it meant very little to them beyond the shock value.  That’s not to say it’s a bad line – it gets attention, after all – but it does suggest that any attempt to determine “what it means” is doomed to failure.

_____________________

This is your host again. What Tom’s research teaches from an ethical perspective is that what are frequently represented as “quotes” are actually the quoter’s generalization or special framing of a less specific or less catchy statement by a source whose name conveys credibility and weight. Sometimes the stated quote isn’t  remotely the sentiment of the source quotes, like the fake Abraham Lincoln quote,

“You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot lift the wage earner up by pulling the wage payer down. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot build character and courage by taking away people’s initiative and independence. You cannot help people permanently by doing for them, what they could and should do for themselves.”

In the case at hand, it is now clear that the revue’s authors were not stating a direct quote; after all, the line isn’t ““Jacques Brel said, ‘If you leave it to them they will crochet the world the color of goose shit.’” Blau and Shuman wrote that Brel says this, meaning that based on his lyrics, this is what he believes. That’s their opinion, then: stating it as they do in the show is misleading, and arguably deceit.

11 thoughts on “An Ethics Alarms Quote Verification Special Report: “Jacques Brel And ‘The Color Of Goose Shit’”

  1. So well done, Tom! I confess that I’ve never pondered the real meaning or gravamen of the “goose shit” phrase (admitting to being less a fan of Jaques Brel than others), but it brought a related and I think very interesting thought (to my mind, anyway):

    My husband and I often discuss the origins of some kinds of slang, quotes that seem to stand alone without any attribution, and turns of phrase that make sense only in certain contexts.

    It would be enlightening (and sometimes, a hoot!) to find out where they originated.

    You should start your own blog. Begin with a few and then, ask readers what they’d like to learn about. Not just comments on your own topics, but questions from readers for you to address. More of a two-way street than most blogs…

    Now you need a good enticing title: Better than “Now Where Did THAT Come From?” but something to draw initial readers in.

    Let Ethics Alarms know when it’s up. No competition, but probably a really nice adjunct (since Marshall is always using familiar but unexplained terms and phrases).

    • E2, the problem with what you are suggesting is that the progressive take on that is that everything is racist or misogynistic and, with a shameless use of the Genetic Fallacy, must be banned.

      -Jut

  2. Indeed, great job Thomas!
    As for a “Thomas D. Fuller Blog,” as my mother would often say, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I always thought that distinct quote was my mom’s. Now I sense from you and Jack that mom likely first heard it from another source. Your potential commenters shall never “gain” if you don’t venture!! You can start your blog with this quote (from my mom, or from someone else’s mom?).
    Good job, Jack!

  3. Fascinating.

    Perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of the Internet is the debate about the origins of quotations that many of us, for so long, took as holy writ. Obviously, those who investigate the origins of quotes have been doing it literally forever, but for the other 99.999% of Americans, we have been living in ignorance, spouting so-called quotes as wisdom (they may be wisdom, forsooth, but all to often not quotes or from whom we would attribute them) for decades.

    Thank you Tom, and you also Jack. This was illuminating and absolutely worth the time to read.

  4. This quote is of passing interest to me, but I think “leave it to them” strongly suggests cynicism.

    However, seeing the expertise evidenced by Thomas, I’d like to see him weigh in on the famous exchange of insults between GBS (“Here are two tickets to opening night, bring a friend, if you have one”) and Winston Churchill (“Busy that night, will come on the second night, if there is one”). Best digging I have seen suggests it was actually Churchill’s nephew who made the second quip.

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