Arun Kapil has commented on the controversy about the tiny place in France that is named “La-mort-aux-juifs”. I think he’s right to call this a tempest in a teacup. But, controversy aside, it is an undeniably bizarre name and I am curious about its origin and meaning. Arun links to an excellent article about the controversy in Marianne that is worth reading but does little to illuminate how this place came to be called “La-mort-aux-juifs”.
It is a grave understatement to say that a person such as myself who struggles even to order dinner in French is obviously not the right person to make an authoritative translation. Nevertheless, I am happy to offer my opinion anyway. I think the name means “the place where the jews died”. In other words, the name probably marks the occurrence of an historical event but provides no clue as to whether the name was bestowed in sorrow or joy.
I am honestly not sure what it means in French and so I am doubly baffled about how it should be translated in English. Hopefully, an immortal will take a break from the strenuous task of not reforming and harmonizing the French language to offer his or her thoughts. Failing that, perhaps an editor of Le Monde will make a definitive pronouncement.
However, this is a good opportunity to introduce my readers to one of my favorite blogs about life in France. It is called “Frogsmoke“. In addition to offering a keen and sometimes cynical view of French life, the blog occasionally highlights unusual or disgusting place names of French places. It is almost entirely written in English and I highly recommend it.
Update (Sunday, October 26, 2014)
A person who actually knows something has weighed in on the controversy. It turns out the the name “La-mort-aux-juifs” may actually be neither a call for the killing of Jews nor a commemoration of an historical event. Pierre-Henri Billy, author of the “Dictionary of Place Names in France” has an article in Le Monde in which he concludes that the name has nothing to do with Pétain or the Nazis. In fact, it very probably didn’t refer to Jews at all but rather evolved more or less accidentally as French spelling and pronunciation changed and evolved over many centuries.