French Language Blog

Follow The Footprints – Origin Of Pied-Noir Posted by on May 11, 2016 in Culture, Vocabulary

Pied noir.svg

By JacquesN — Travail personnel, Domaine public.

Last week I interviewed Arnaud Fièvre as a part of the Real French Series. One of the things he talked about was le mot (the word) pied-noir. Litterally translated pied-noir is black-foot, but it has a different meaning in French.

According to le Larousse, pied-noir is a noun and an adjective and has the following definition:

Français d’origine européenne installé en Afrique du Nord jusqu’à l’époque de l’indépendance.
French person of European origin who settled in North Africa until the time of independence.

Arnaud talked about what le mot means and its history with French settlers en Algérie (in Algeria), but did not go into its etymology. I was curious about where exactly le mot came from and decided to look it up une fois à la maison (once I was home).

The problem is le mot has an uncertain origin. There is evidence of it being used for Algerian Arabs before it referred to French colonizers as a reference to the sailors who worked pieds-nus (barefoot) shoveling coal resulting in them having black feet.

Le mot started being used for French nationals born in Algeria, but the reason why isn’t well known. There are many hypothèses, but no one is sûr à cent pour cent (one hundred percent sure). One hypothèse is that is came from les guêtres (the gaiters, the leggings) worn by French soldiers of the time.

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“Des guêtres” | Image by Pearson Scott Foresman, Domaine public.

There is more speculation that le mot came from les premiers colons français  (the first French colonizers) who set out to drain les marais (the swamps) or les colons français who came to Algeria in order to make wine. Both of those referring to la couleur des pieds des colons (the color of the feet of the colonizers).

There is also a theory that le mot came from a group of young French film-makers who called themselves “pied-noirs” as a reference to the Native American tribe. Although these film-makers were from Morocco, the term could have easily crossed the border into Algeria.

It’s clear that the origin of le mot pied-noir is not very well known and while there are many interesting hypothèses none of them are currently known to the real etymology. That uncertainty is reflected in its usage that can expand to cover les personnes de confession juive (people of the Jewish faith) who were living in Algeria before la colonisation française.

Le terme can also be seen as offensive to some people who prefer to use the more formal Français d’Algérie (French from Algeria).

Cependant (however), pied-noir is an accepted part of informal French today and while its origin and usage can get tied up in the complex history of la colonisation et la guerre d’indépendance algérienne (colonization and the Algerian War of Independence), le mot can also teach us about that history and help us get a little closer to a new culture.

If you have heard of any other possible origins for pied-noir let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.