Is 'Quenelle' Backwards Version of Nazi Salute?

Popular French Reverse Slang Offers Clues to Odious Gesture

Not So Beau Geste: The controversial ‘Quenelle’ hand gesture may have its origins in a form of French slang called ‘verlan.’
Getty Images
Not So Beau Geste: The controversial ‘Quenelle’ hand gesture may have its origins in a form of French slang called ‘verlan.’

By Philologos

Published January 19, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

By now you may think you’ve heard or read all you want to about the quenelle, the double hand movement that was popularized by the French comedian Dieudonné and has been all over the news since the French soccer star Nicolas Anelka performed it after scoring a goal in a game in England on December 28, 2013. Denounced by its would-be banners as a disguised Nazi salute, and defended by its practitioners as a harmless thumbing of one’s nose at authority, it has turned the traditional debate over freedom of speech into a debate over freedom of gesture.

Let us leave this debate for the editorial pages. Rather, let’s ask, first: Why should pointing one arm diagonally downward with its fingers extended while touching that arm’s shoulder with the opposite hand be considered a Nazi salute? Second: Why should this gesture be called a quenelle, which is the name of a kind of French dumpling? And third: Where did this dumpling get its name?

Let’s start with the last of these questions. A quenelle is a dumpling of ground meat or fish commonly associated with the region of Lyon; traditionally made with a filling of pike, it should have, in the words of one food commentator, “an ethereal melt in your mouth deliciousness mingled with a hint of sustenance, consistency, and richness.” The quenelle was not originally, however, a Lyonnaise dish. The word arrived in France, according to my Larousse Dictionnaire Étymologique de la Langue Française, via Alsace in the 18th century as a Frenchified form of knödl — the same German word for “dumpling” that has given us our beloved Jewish kneydl, aka matzo ball.

There’s no mystery about that. Neither is there much about how Dieudonné’s quenelle got its name. The comedian himself bestowed that on it, when he started using it in his routines nearly 10 years ago. Although the culinary quenelle is generally squat like most dumplings, it sometimes takes a thinner, elongated form that inspired Dieudonné, comparing it to a condom, to coin the phrase glisser une quenelle, to “give the finger” to someone. Applied by him to the gesture he invented, both word and gesture caught on.

But why this particular gesture? This would appear to be a mystery — or anyway, I haven’t been able to find any explanation for it. Permit me to suggest one of my own.

Since at least as far back as the 1970s, French has had a form of slang known as verlan, a word that is a reversal of l’envers, which in the expression á l’envers means “inside out” or “upside down.” And indeed, Verlan works by turning words upside down. If femme means “woman” in French, a woman in Verlan is a moeuf. If a flic is a policeman, than a kuelf, which becomes keuf, is one in Verlan. Almost any word can be reversed in Verlan (or even re-reversed, as when keuf becomes feuk), which is especially widely used by the young and the marginalized — the same population for whom Dieudonné, as an anti-establishment comic, has claimed to speak. Like many such argots, Verlan enables speakers from these groups to feel they are being “cool” (looc in Verlan) by outwitting the “squares” who do not understand them.

And now consider the quenelle. It consists of two movements. One is the stiff arm angled downward, with the fingers outstretched. Is this not a “Verlanization” of the Nazi “Sieg heil!” in which the stiff arm and fingers were angled upward? It is the physical equivalent of saying moef instead of femme.

But, you ask, what about the other movement of the quenelle, in which the hand of the unextended arm is placed on the shoulder of the extended one? This does not appear to be part of an upside-down Nazi salute, which was commonly given, as can be seen in photographs of sieg-heiling Germans, with the arm that was not saluting hanging by one’s side. To “Verlanize” that arm, one would have to hold it up in the air rather than place its hand on the shoulder of the saluting arm.

But wait. Look at photographs of Nazi rallies in which Hitler is returning the saluters’ salutes. Where is his other hand? In all the photographs of him saluting that I have been able to find, it is always in the same place: not hanging at his side, but resting diagonally on his belt or across the bottom of his shirt. A “Verlanization” of this would be precisely to lay one’s nonsaluting hand across one’s shoulder, with the angle formed by one’s elbow identical to, but in the opposite direction of, that formed by Hitler’s.

Was Dieudonné aware that he was “speaking” Verlan when he invented the quenelle? The only one who could answer that question is Dieudonné — if, that is, you could get an honest answer from him. In any case, if he wasn’t consciously “Verlanizing” the Hitler salute, he was following an unconscious pattern of thinking that came from Verlan. A harmless thumbing of one’s nose at authority? You have to be pretty teub (that’s Verlan for bête, which means dumb) to believe that.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.