Les verres de verre vert.

Les verres de verre vert.

lay VAIR duh VAIR VAIR.

The green glass glasses (or goblets).

Don’t you love it? French is full of homonyms, and this is a great one. Verre meaning a glass or goblet. Verre meaning the substance, glass. Vert meaning green. All pronounced identically!

So who would string this odd-sounding trio together, and to what end?

It was our friend Gustave Flaubert, the 19th-century novelist, author of Madame Bovary and many other books. Flaubert believed fervently that there is just one “right” word, le mot juste, for any given context: the word that conveys all without being explicit. The perfect word, that contains but yet hides it entire meaning. The word that rings true, like a note of music that seems inevitable.

In Madame Bovary (read it if you haven’t already done so!), Emma Bovary, the wife of a country doctor, dreams of a life of luxury. She longs for something better, though she isn’t quite sure what that might be or how to obtain it. Along comes Rodolphe, a bourgeois who seems to be above her station in life and who sweeps her off her feet.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Rodolphe takes Emma to a ball, a dinner-dance as we might call it today. Emma is awed by everything from the dresses of the other women to the table settings. She believes she has entered a world of elegance, refinement, delicacy.

Flaubert, who invented the scene in the first place, knows better. He never pricks her bubble by announcing how vulgar the whole setting is. Instead, he uses le mot juste to convey that sense to us. Flaubert never announces; he allows us to see. So here, we see on the table les verres de verre vert.

Without question, Flaubert could have found a more harmonious-sounding, a more melodious grouping of words than les verres de verre vert. He could have called the glasses gobelets or coupes. But he shows us the lack of elegance by choosing this most inharmonious phrase–this internal rhyme, or repetition of sounds, being highly unpleasant to the French ear. One even imagines that green glass, le verre vert, might have been a lower-class choice at the time. Not crystal, certainly!

So, interestingly, this little phrase that Flaubert seems to drop casually into his description, is anything but casual. It is considered and intentionally gauche. Le mot juste is not always the most beautiful word, but the one that best describes the author’s vision. And Flaubert never made a mistake in this respect.

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