Monsieur Mal Élevé


I was studying my French vocabulary this morning and came across this phrase, that struck me as interesting:

Mad Manners Magazine.

Mal élevé (or for girls, mal élevée) means “bad-mannered”.  As a point of comparison, bien élevé(-e) means “well-mannered.” A little knowledge of French is a dangerous thing, but most of my readers will probably know that mal means bad, while bien means good (or in this case, well). Élevé comes from the idea of raising or lifting something up. You might recognize the English word elevate in it, in much the same way the pope is raised to his office, or an elevator moves people up an obnoxiously tall building. So literally, the French would translate to “badly-raised” or “well-raised.” There’s even a cartoon in French: Mr. Mal Élevé, which I know nothing about, other than he seems to be a rather popular cartoon morality tale of some kind.

French English Literal English 
Mal élevé Bad-mannered “Badly-raised”
Bien élevé well-mannered “well-raised”

I am writing all this because I found it interesting that in the French language (at least), these words haven’t lost the idea that the onus lies squarely upon the shoulders of the guardian to instill manners in children. (Manners, incidentally, is from the french word manières, which means  “ways”.) In English, we’ve lost that sense. In English, if “you have bad manners”, it’s your fault. Not the school’s, not your parents’, not a chance rubbing-off from society, but yours.

M. Mal Elevé.

In French, élève means “pupil”. It is used for children and adolescents. The word élève has the sense of guardianship of a teacher, who is raising up a child. In English, a pupil has the same sense (from  a very old Latin word meaning orphan, or ward, and later Latin apprentice) as the word élève, even though we use pupil interchangeably (although probably less frequently) with student these days.

In french, étudiant means “student.” This word is not used for children eighteen and under. It is reserved for people in university, who are responsible for their own education. Student is from Latin root that means “to take pains.” Your own pain. When you’re no longer a minor, you get to take pains, not be a ward.

M. Mal Elevé. Being his rude li'l self.

My first thought was “Hey! If my kids don’t have good manners, it’s not my fault.  And schooling? Also not my fault if they fail! That’s not very nice!” I didn’t really connect it with the thought that it’s a rather precise linguistic construct in another language. Our language is not quite as demanding. Student and pupil are used interchangeably, although one word (historically) insinuates the care of parents and teachers. I wonder if our society would be different, if we had a sense of parental and educational responsibility, still condensed in these words. Instead we pass the buck “That kid is bad-mannered (and who knows where he got it from, surely not me!)” or “That kid is a student (and his Fs are his own responsibility–not his teacher’s; not mine!)”  Maybe if we went around saying “That kid sure was badly raised!” or “He’s still a pupil…” We’d stand up and take notice.

Just a thought.

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2 thoughts on “Monsieur Mal Élevé”

  1. I felt exactly this way on Sunday. Someone else’s kid did a really great job listening to instructions and taking care of others. Jonathon said our boy would have done the same in the same circumstances; I diagreed. Which made me feel like a terrible parent. Sigh. We got work to do!

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