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By Eric Shackle

While Thailand, New Zealand and Wales promote towns claiming "the world's longest place name" as tourist attractions, the place with the world's shortest name, a tiny French village called Y, is almost unknown. It appears on hardly any maps, and few Internet search engines know anything about it.

Y (its 29 inhabitants pronounce it as E),  whose brief name dates back to 1241, is near the township of Ham ans Athies in the department of Somme in Picardy. In World War I (1914-18), the Somme, on the Western Front,  was a bloody battefield, where more than a million British, French and German troops were killed in two horrific encounters.

Famous German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) mentioned Y in his book Der Rote Kampfflieger, published in 1917. An English language version was published in 1918 as The Red Battle Flyer.

"We went on a shooting expedition on the twentieth of April," he wrote. "We came home very late and lost Schäfer on the way. Of course everyone hoped that he would come to land before dark. It struck nine, it struck ten, but no Schäfer was visible.

"His benzine could not last so long. Consequently, he had landed somewhere, for no one was willing to admit that he had been shot down. No one dared to mention the possibility. Still, everyone was afraid for him.

"The ubiquitous telephone was set in motion in order to find out whether a flying man had come down anywhere. Nobody could give us information. No Division and no Brigade had seen anything of him. We felt very uncomfortable. At last we went to bed. All of us were perfectly convinced that he would turn up in the end.

"At two o'clock, after midnight, I was suddenly awakened. The telephone orderly, beaming with pleasure, reported to me: 'Schäfer is in the Village of Y, and would like to be fetched home.'"

Y is the subject of an ancient poem (more like a lament) ostensibly composed by an unknown author who seems to have thought the village was the pits. The heading, Seul à moine, grogne d'Y, freely translates as  Lonely as a Shag on a Rock, the Whinges of Y. It's on the Internet together with these annotations, written tongue-in-cheek by David Gruar, a witty student of Modern and Medieval Languages (Spanish and Italian) at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (UK) University.

Seul à moine, grogne d'Y, The poet is grumbling about his monk-like existence in the village of Y.
Bornes, aulnes, amandes d'Y. He presumably finds no attraction in the village's milestones, alders or almonds, regarding them with weary cynicism.
Cri sonne d'une toux, c'est d'Y, Even his cries of despair are only interpreted as coughs by others.
Marre y donne où haine cède d'Y. "In Y, hatred gives way to boredom". An effective picture of a life devoid of excitements.
Tout qui, lent, touriste d'Y, The poet turns his attention to the curious visitor.
Où heures sonnent frais d'Y
D'ail donne,
"Where the hours chime as a gift of fresh garlic". The meaning of this phrase is unclear, but it could refer to a tradition similar to the Spanish custom of eating a grape on each stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. Perhaps, in Y, the Mairie gave out cloves of garlic to be used instead of grapes, to give more interest to the proceedings.
s'atterre d'Y,
Beurre y donne.
Presumably another municipal gift, to relieve the inevitable dismay felt by the tourist.
Somme d'Y
Une date, Oise d'Y, Aisne..
The poet dreams of one day escaping to the South, crossing the Somme, Oise and Aisne rivers.
.. But this evidently appears too much like hard work...
Seul à moine, grogne d'Y. And the cycle of grumbling starts again.

No wonder no one wants to visit Y.

EXPLANATION:  The poem about Y was written not by an unknown author, but by David Gruar. It resembles several clever "translations" of English children's rhymes composed by Luis d'Antin van Rooten, using French homophones  (words with similar sounds) which make little or no sense in French. Van Rooten's rhymes were published in a book, Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames (Mother Goose Rhymes) in 1967,  presented as a collection of medieval French verse.

In the preface, van Rooten wrote: "The most fascinating quality of these verses is found upon reading them aloud in the sonorous, measured classic style made famous by the Comédie Française at the turn of the century... these poems then assume a strangely familiar, almost nostalgic, homely quality."

Seul à moine, grogne d'Y is the French spelling of Solomon Grundy, the title of this well-known English nursery rhyme:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday:
And that was the end
Of Solomon Grundy.

"These French Concoctions make no sense in French," says Internet tutor Jay Gerard, of northern New Jersey, (US) on his amusing French Concoctions webpage. "If you understand French and try to actually glean meaning from these verses, you will find only nonsense. These Concoctions are intended to be read with a French pronunciation but heard with an English ear. Thus, if you read 'un petit d'un petit' as 'uhn peuh tee deuhn peuh tee' you might actually hear Humpty Dumpty.'"

An American, Ormonde de Kay (1921-95) wrote similar "concoctions" in his book N'Heures Souris Rames, a clever rendition of English nursery rhymes as French poetry. An English critic wrote: "The better the French accent, the better the joke works. In general, however, the French have remained resolutely unamused by this quintessentially anglo-saxon humour."

In 1971 de Kay produced Rimes de la Mère Oie, a translation of Mother Goose that managed to retain the metre, rhyme schemes and humour of the English originals. Robert Graves called it "a remarkable achievement and a great gift to the French."

Copyright © 2001.   Eric Shackle   Story first posted September 2001.

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