Les flics and what's a '22' alert got to do with the police?

The police are in the news today after President Macron announced wide scale plans for reforms. We look at some colloquial terms and expressions you might hear in talk about the police and gendarmes in France.

15 September 2021

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today Pic: The Connexion

One of the most common is ‘flics’ - the equivalent of the English friendly word ‘cops’. There are various theories about its origins.

Some say ‘flic’ is a form of onomatopoeia, resonating the noise from policemen’s canes hitting the floor with their metal tip.

Others say it comes from the German word ‘fliege’, which means ‘fly’ and dates to 14th century France when traitors and spies who collaborated with authorities would be referred to as ‘mouches’ (‘flies’). This eventually expanded to the police themselves. 

The word supposedly made its way to Germany, where it was translated to ‘fliege’, and back to France, where the German was shortened to ‘flic’.

Another theory is that as, in the past, policemen had the right to use physical force against a criminal it comes from ‘flic’ meaning to strike or beat.

Modern alternatives to ‘flic’ would be ‘keuf’ and ‘ripoux’. Nowadays, it is common to invert the pronunciation of existing words to create new slang words. Both terms are examples of this - ‘keuf’ comes from ‘flic’ and ‘ripoux’ from ‘pourri’, which translates to ‘corrupt’.

You may also hear the more offensive term ‘poulet’, or ‘chicken’, being used to describe officers. The closest English equivalent would be ‘pigs’.

This term is said to have been coined in 1871 in Paris, when the police moved into barracks which were built on a former poultry market but over time it has gained a negative connotation and is now considered insulting.

Read more: Macron announces 11 reforms for French police and gendarmerie

What's going on if you hear '22' shouted?

When police arrive, you may hear ‘vingt-deux’, the number 22, being called out as a warning. 

This code was initially used by linotypists working typesetting machines in the 19th century to warn each other of the boss approaching during an unauthorized break. Size 22 was the text used for headlines so it could be shouted out without raising any suspicions.

True to French form, there are also various food-related expressions used when referring to the police.

For example, ‘cuisiner’ - to cook - can be used as well as  ‘interroger’ to mean to interrogate or question a suspect.

Moreover, a police van will be referred to as a ‘panier à salade’, which translates as ‘salad spinner’! 

This expression comes from the 19th century, when it was possible to see into prisoner transport vehicles. As the roads were bad and the carriages pulled by horses, the prisoners would be shaken around a lot, which the French likened to food in a salad spinner.

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