Monday, February 06, 2012

A brief divertissement on language and meaning

Subtitle: Bras Coupé lives on

Throughout history, both oppressor and oppressed have spoken in coded language when plain speech would have caused them problems. Nowadays we often refer to this kind of speech as “dog-whistle,” usually in the context of sociopolitics. For example, in 1981, Lee Atwater, infamous Republican strategist, said:

You start out in 1954 saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968, you can't say "nigger." That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting abstract now. You're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is - blacks get hurt worse than whites… I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me? Because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger.”

That’s an example of how the oppressors use code. For a good example of the oppressed using code, let’s drop back a couple of thousand years to when Christians used the symbol of the fish to recognize each other. The fish is certainly innocuous to the noncognoscenti of the general public but those who are au courant know what it really means. ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys = fish) is an acronym for "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ", (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), which in English is "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." Christians still use the fish symbol today, as you well know.

Of course, I could now talk about how that symbol was used to oppress once the formerly oppressed became the new oppressors; but that's a different post.

With those examples under our belts, let’s talk about the language code I want to share with you.

Current American vernacular has adopted the urban slang “bro” for “brother.” The Hawaiian variant, after being run through their Automatic Pidgin Translator, is “brah,” which sounds charming when spoken by a native but hurts my fucking ears when abused by the mouths of haoles. There is one, lone, single, singular exception: The homophone “bras.” Yes, it’s pronounced just like the Hawaiian “brah;” it’s French! Just as “bro” was coopted by the larger society from Black vernacular, contemporary New Orleans area Whites unthinkingly use “bras,” blithely assuming it to be merely the local version of “bro”. But the true root is far deeper and more portentous and lends a delightful irony to the scene of White yuppie ingenues bras-ing each other as they cavort around the French Quarter on a sultry, decadent weekend evening of music, absinthe, and debauchery.

Blacks in South Louisiana have greeted each other with “bras” since slavery days, but not as a casual version of “brother.” No indeed. “Bras” is far more deeply portentous than that. “Bro” when used in a casual interpersonal exchange in contemporary America is a meaningless word, equivalent to “dude” or “pal” or “fellow” or any other pedestrian diminutive. “Bras” tells a story and implies a promise.

In the early 1800s there was a slave who was called “Squire” by his White owners; his African birth name is lost to time. He was constantly escaping and during one particular escape and recapture was shot in the arm, resulting in the loss of that limb. There is an alternate story which says that he was not shot but that the limb was hacked off as punishment. I find both possibilities credible; choose the one you prefer. After recovering from the amputation, he again escaped. This time, he formed a band of escaped slaves and hardscrabble back-bayou Cajuns, and became the Robin Hood of South Louisiana Blacks.

Of course, White society saw him as a terrible moral-philosophical-sociopolitical threat and put a large price on his head. It was during this period that he emerged from the chrysalis of “Squire” to become Bras Coupé (the guy with the cut-off arm). Newspaper accounts of his activities at the time read like the most lurid of horror stories, for example, an “eyewitness account” from the New Orleans Picayune of Bras Coupé turning on four soldiers who were pursuing him, pulling their limbs from their bodies, and devouring the raw flesh in an orgy of bloodlust. What?!? Totally raw, without even a little sauce piquante? Wow, that guy was tough!

Black slaves saw him as a shining possibility. White mothers warned disobedient children that they’d be trimmed by Bras Coupé.

Inevitably, the reward for him was too great a temptation and a sometimes-ally beat him to death as he slept then turned in the body for the cash it represented. (Parenthetical story. The reward was listed as $2000. The mayor of New Orleans, Dennis Prieur, threatened the hopeful collector with jail time for being in Bras Coupé ‘s gang and/or murder for the way he killed Bras Coupé and ultimately negotiated him down to $250.) July 18, 1837 marked the physical end of Bras Coupé; however, it was merely the beginning of his legend. While he was alive and running free, robbing and harassing complacent White society, his name became a disturbing talisman to the power structure. After his death, his body was put on display in New Orleans and slaves were forced to file past it over the next few weeks as a reminder of what happens to rebellious slaves. Some accounts intimate that the forced viewing had the opposite effect and it strengthened the slaves’ resolve to resist and oppose their masters. An aside, remember that this is Summertime in New Orleans. The stench must have been horrific.

Whatever the reality of that viewing might be in terms of cowing or emboldening other slaves, the slaves in New Orleans and South Louisiana took to using the honorific “bras” among themselves as an homage and an exhortation to stay strong. In a move typical of an oppressed underclass, such a callout was innocuous enough to fly under the radar of the White overlords because it could be a simple variant of “brother,” but it was in actuality a deeply meaningful communication between exchangers.

Referring to another person with the sobriquet “bras” implies the history and the promise of Bras Coupé. Individual strength and strength of numbers can and will lead to freedom. Perhaps only short-term freedom, like Bras Coupé himself, his life, like his arm, cut short; but perhaps, hopefully, someday, by being brave and true and bold like Bras Coupé, freedom could be ubiquitous and universal.

I am, of course, a contemporary, comfortable, middle-class White guy, not a Black slave nor even a downtrodden, second-class-citizen Black of the 1950s. But I am a socially and politically aware product of a New Orleans upbringing and I grok the gestalt of “bras.”

I may call someone “dude,” “pal,” “buddy,” “my man,” etc. and all of those are equivalently meaningless, just a casual acknowledgement of the existence of someone I’m interacting with. Ah, but if I call you “bras,” well, that’s an entirely different story and, whether you know it or not, I have accorded you an immensely powerful honorific and implication that I trust that you are the kind of person who’ll “nut up” when you’re called upon to do so.


  1. this needs a "like" button.
    intense story and history i did not know. thank you.

  2. Glad you found it interesting!

  3. wow, fascinating. I love your blog. I never know what I'll find.


  4. I never knew this particular bit of history. Fascinating and, like all slave stories, horrifying. Thanks for writing it down.

  5. Thanks, Jess.

    You're welcom, Heather.

  6. Great post Frank - the history I was taught at school was so shocking in its bias - it made colonialism and triangular trade sound like free choices.

  7. Thanks, Katie. You can imagine what my school history class was like in New Orleans in the days before integration.

  8. A very informative piece on a word we locally use.