A curious phrase I learned from Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (with a recentish Penguin translation as A Harlot High and Low) that came to mind this morning when I ran into a cow while hiking:
Jacques Collin parlait le français comme une vache espagnole
Jacques Collin spoke French like a Spanish cow
The first appearance of the idiom is securely dated to the mid 17th century but the origin is disputed. These are the three theories I can find:
- ‘Vache’ is a deformation of ‘vasques’ from Latin ‘vasco’ and originally referred to a Gascon or a Basque. The former were traditionally regarded as a bit backwoods (D’Artagnan is the best known instance of a Gascon bumpkin-ish character) while the latter were equally backwoods with the added disadvantage of being foreign.
- ‘Vache’ is a deformation of ‘basse’, which at the time referred to a servant woman of foreign origins whose French was predictably poor.
- It blends an existing ‘comme une vache’ that generically slurred the performance of any action with a 17th century nationalist distaste for the Spanish.