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L'expression de valeur « de qualité » a connu au Québec une évolution sémantique qui l'a amenée, en emploi adjectif, au sens de « fâcheux, malheureux » (on regrette ce qui aurait été positif). C'est de valeur, c'est bien de valeur que tu t'en ailles si vite.

[ Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, dir. A. Rey, Le Robert, 2011 ]


Dans un document traitant du lexique en 1930 au Québec, on identifie l'expression de valeur pour « fâcheux, malheureux, ennuyeux, grand dommage, regrettable, triste, pénible etc. » puis c'est suivi de cette explication sur l'étymologie :

Dans une lettre du 21 juillet 1756, écrite aux pays des Illinois et qui se trouve dans les Nouveaux Voyages aux Indes occidentales, Bossu raconte la mort d'un sauvage de la nation des Collapissas [?], qui s'est sacrifié pour son fils dont les Chactas avaient demandé la tête, et il prête à ce père le discours qui suit : « C'est de valeur que mon fils meurt. Mais étant jeune & vigoureux, il est plus capable que moi de nourrir sa mere, sa femme, & quatre jeunes enfans; il est donc nécessaire qu'il reste sur terre pour en prendre soin... » Et il ajoute en note « Le terme de valeur est un mot qui signifie, en leur langue, ce qui est fort ou extraordinaire. » Est-ce bien là l'origine de la locution canadienne de valeur ? Cette locution ne serait-elle pas plutôt une déformation de la locution de male heure, qui était usitée dans l'ancien français avec le sens de malheureusement ? Ou bien l'acception particulière que de valeur prend dans le franco-canadien n'est-elle pas tout simplement une extension de celle que cette locution a en français ? Car c'est de valeur équivaut à : c'est d'importance, c'est de conséquence.

[ Glossaire du parler français au Canada, de la Société du parler français du Canada, éd. L'action sociale, 1930 ]


  • Connaît-on aujourd'hui l'origine exacte de cette expression ; peut-on expliquer le lien sémantique entre la qualité et le malheur ou comment un sens comme ce qui est fort ou extraordinaire se rapprocherait du deuxième ; s'agit-il d'une extension de sens, d'une déformation, y a-t-il une explication ou l'idée de regretter ce qui aurait été positif provient-elle d'une interprétation du tour employé par le membre des Premières Nations amérindiennes de la vallée de la rivière aux Perles et dont le sens était indissociable du contexte ?
  • Autrement dit, peut-on décrire le « procédé » qui donnerait à de valeur son sens et expliquer si c'est comparable à ce qu'on trouve dans une expression du type pas piqué des vers où on a la négation de quelque chose ; est-ce comme une antiphrase et pourquoi c'est devenu usuel, utile en français du Québec ; ce « procédé » est-il courant en français plus « régulier » ?
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    I'm not able to give a real answer, but two thoughts: (1) A semantic link could be an older use of valeur closer to Latin valeō which has secondary meanings "être fort, significatif". Clearly that concept is susceptible to both good and bad connotations depending on the language and time. Compare English enormous "huge" previously negative "abormal". (2) Was /v/ really [v] or could it have been [β] for those speakers/time? [β] seems to me a likely early stage on the way from Latin [u] (need a good reference for the development) and is extremely close to [m] as in malheur*/*male heure. – Luke Sawczak May 27 '17 at 14:43
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    Other English words with a similar literal meaning but strong connotations: egregious lit. "out of the flock", Latin "exceptional", older English "outstanding" (positive), modern English "heinous" (quite the development!); anomalous (neutral) vs. abnormal (negative); outstanding previously "conspicuous" (neutral) now "excellent"; extraordinary lit. "out of order" now "excellent"; and many more. In short, words meaning "noteworthy" can be good or bad, and even switch during a language's lifetime. I'm not sure if there's a term for this, but I don't think it's all irony nor pejoration. – Luke Sawczak May 27 '17 at 14:55
  • I don't understand the question: L'expression comment?? on dit qu'ailleurs au Canada français?? Pourriez-vous reposer votre question ou l'améliorer? – Lambie May 27 '17 at 19:36
  • @Lambie Please see edit revisions for details. This Glossaire is about Quebec lexicon, despite the name. This explains the remark you discussed, which I removed now as it can throw someone off without further explaining. It need not be assessed and shouldn't detract anyone from the gist of the question now. Thanks! – user3177 May 28 '17 at 3:38
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    Formulated as an answer. I'll probably return to it later and clean it up (feels too long and some parts written in haste), but should do for now. – Luke Sawczak May 28 '17 at 18:58
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After having now gone through the material, here are my thoughts. To preface this, I'm only proposing the various means by which this semantic shift could have taken place, not deciding between them. Thus, I'm only answering the procédé part of your question.

The two basic paths I'm laying out are either (1) that de valeur either had or came to have the sense of fort, extraordinaire, which then swung over to the negative side instead of the positive thanks to the inherent neutrality of that sense, or else (2) that it did have a positive meaning, but irony flipped its valence, as you suggested. Clearly there is some overlap between these two stories.

Bossu's gloss and the Muskogean original

First, I think Papa Poule is on the money with his second interpretation of de valeur as it occurs in Bossu's text. Bossu's gloss for the word makes little sense in context (though it might have if the opening of the "harangue" weren't immediately followed by "mais").

Since the idea of valeur is tied to the verb valoir and can mean ce que vaut une chose (TLFi étymologie), it makes good sense to me that the father is saying, "It is indeed fitting/warranted that my son should die, but being young and vigorous, he is more capable [than I] of providing for his mother, his wife, and his four young children."

However, the scenario is complicated by the ambiguity of Bossu's footnote:

Le terme de valeur est un mot qui signifie, en leur langue, ce qui est fort ou extraordinare.

The linguistic layers must be disentangled. Presumably by "in their language" he means one of two things: a patois or dialect of French, which I doubt; or the Acolapissas' own Muskogean language, in which case our only access to the Muskogean term is by the intermediary of Bossu's rendering de valeur. However, the point of Bossu's footnote is to say that the literal meaning of de valeur does not represent the meaning of the Muskogean, giving us little clarity indeed about the latter.

It seems that Bossu considers that the Muskogean in some sense (etymologically?) equates to de valeur at the time of his writing, yet actually conveys the meaning "ce qui est fort ou extraordinaire". That is, his observation is about of the same order as the French learner who reports that aujourd'hui "literally" means "on the day of this", but what it really means is "today".

This sort of astonishment is very typical of an early learner navigating a second language and realizing that many simple words can be broken down by an analytical eye into a curious "literal" meaning. (Indeed, it's an essential strategy for identifying the meanings of new words.) That Bossu was often struck by words of this kind is suggested by the avertissement :

...d'autres [notes] pour expliquer certaines phrases emblématiques dont se servent les Sauvages dans leurs harangues.

By this I mean that just as a native French speaker uses aujourd'hui simply to mean "today" without thinking of the components that stand out to a language learner, for all we know the Muskogean word may have resembled de valeur in form only. If that's true, de valeur was no more the best translation than "on the day of this" would be for aujourd'hui — though it may be of etymological interest.


Proposed intermediate stage: "fort, extraordinaire"

What is the significance of the Muskogean for our etymology? It contributes the first of the several hypothetical ways that de valeur could have come to mean fort, extraordinare.

  1. Perhaps settlers were just as struck as Bossu was by the "literal" meanings of those phrases emblématiques, and allowed these meanings to creep into their language. This phenomenon is referred to as semantic borrowing. Bossu demonstrated it very well: he used the French phrase in what he felt was an unnatural way that must be explained to French readers, with the intent of mimicking the phrase's semantic range in Muskogean. Incidentally, this effect has a long history: as Moises Silva notes in a 1975 article on semantic borrowing in the New Testament, the Septuagint Greek that translated the Hebrew Tanakh used Greek terms as though they were the Hebrew equivalents: for example, they used one Greek word for "lake" and "sea" as Hebrew does, rather than distinguishing the two as Greek did. No new word need be borrowed for the semantic range to spread. Hence, it would not be surprising if by long cultural association, Canadian French speakers tended to borrow not only the forms but sometimes the semantic ranges of Indigenous words.

  2. Perhaps, on the other hand, Bossu's account and others like it could have influenced de valeur. That is, the semantic range might have shifted in Canadian French without direct reference to the Muskogean, only mediated.

  3. Perhaps in Canadian French (or that of the original settlers' home regions when they left France), de valeur still had a neutral sense similar to one of the meanings of its root, Latin valeō : with "être significatif, puissant". Compare even the modern senses noted in TLFi entry IV - D "Importance, portée d'une chose" or I - B mettre en valeur, one of whose senses is "mettre en évidence, en relief". On this view, the Muskogean term is entirely irrelevant, since de valeur would not have gained but retained this meaning.

Between the above, I consider (1) more likely than (2), but between (1) and (3) I would be undecided.

However, I reflect at this point that after consideration of the TLFi entry and of valeō, as well as similar terms in other languages, either way there is some semantic overlap between "to be worth, to signify" and "to be strong, to be noteworthy". Expressing something's worth is not far removed from saying that it's worthy, nor identifying its signification from saying that it's significant. (Incidentally, this is another demonstration of the principle that the pragmatic value of an utterance gradually colours the denotations of the words used.)

In light of that, we can add the remark that Bossu hardly needed to provide his interpretation for de valeur at all — unless the meaning was firmly positive by that point and hence ill-fitting in the father's remark. For example, it might have come primarily to mean "valuable" or even "excellent".

On the one hand, this is plausible given that the TLFi etymology of valeur lists mostly positive senses long before the 18th century. On the other hand, it would mean that the "literal" meaning of Muskogean term had such a positive connotation, which is harder to reconcile with its appearance at that juncture, though not impossible, if Bossu's analysis is correct (but remember that his particular interpretation hurts the text's coherence!).

In any case, I think we're obliged to posit this fourth option:

  1. There never was a fort, extraordinaire stage natural to Canadian French. It was only positive.

Ending up at "unfortunate"

As I mentioned in my comments, the semantic area of "significant, notable" is highly ambivalent in terms of sentiment. And as you mentioned, irony or antiphrase can swing the valence of a term. Those seem to me to be the two plausible paths to a negative meaning.

  1. If there was a "fort, extraordinaire" stage (1–3 above), it was probably ambivalent as to whether it was positive or negative. Such terms tend to fall on one side or the other over a language's lifetime, and even to swing between them at different stages. In fact, such developments have been very common in English:

enormous : previously "abnormal", even "outrageous" (compare enormity); now "huge" (neutral)

outstanding : previously "conspicuous" (compare standing out); now "excellent, admirable"

anomalous : neutral, yet sharing an etymology ("against norms") with the negative term abnormal

extraordinary : literally "out of order"; now "excellent" (or neutral "noteworthy")

egregious : literally "out of the flock"; in Latin it meant "exceptional"; the early English borrowing meant "outstanding, distinguished" (positive); modern English "heinous" (negative)

  1. If, on the other hand, there never was a "fort, extraordinaire" stage (4 above), irony or antiphrasty could indeed have swung a positive connotation to a negative one.

What is needed to determine whether, which, when, and why either of the above developments happened is a good corpus crawl. For example, either examining Ngrams results by hand or subjecting them to natural language processing sentiment analysis.

This of course is the historical, contingent question; I hope that I've answered the theoretical, procédé question. I'm not sure if there's a term reserved for this process, but "polyvalent" is the first word that comes to mind for these words that are liable to undergo it.


Appendix: phonological slip

Since the 1930 document and WordReference thread both mention the connection with malheur and male heure, it's worth examining this account of the change, though I think it's less likely.

The sounds [v] and [m] are not the most easily confounded. However, [v] is just the endpoint of a French sound that may have been at an earlier stage in its development when de valeur took on this meaning. Two candidates come to mind for sounds that could be confounded with [m].

The first is the origin of this phoneme, Latin /u/ (realized as [w] before a vowel). The reason /u/ [w] is a good candidate is that it involves bilabial movement. From what I can recall about the phonological development of French, however, it's very unlikely that the phoneme would still be realized [w] in the 18th century — or even in a regiolect of earlier settlers in the 15th–17th centuries. I was looking for references and the only readily scanned one was this Wikipedia article, which is somewhat vague on /u/ but does imply that it had shifted to /v/ long before the New World was discovered.

The second is the voiced bilabial fricative [β]. This is a very predictable step between [w] and [v], bridging the two by combining the bilabial articulation of [w] (the condition for confounding it with [m]) with the frication of [v]. In fact, [β] is the endpoint of /v/ in some phonological conditions in many variations of Spanish. It's even possible that it was present in some older or regional varieties of French, because to speakers whose languages don't possess the sound, it tends to be perceived as [v]. Data from that period might not make the distinction clearly, so it's theoretically possible that valeur sounded more like malheur in the settlers' dialects than it does now.

Moreover, it's true that slips of articulation or perception can spread across a language. For example, the English phrase home in on soon spawned hone in on because it's an extremely good candidate for assimilation, and it now appears that original phrase could be being overtaken.

However, I have two reservations about this explanation in the case of valeur / malheur. In the first place, we'd expect to see many more words showing /v/ alternating with /m/, and probably some research on such a phenomenon.

In the second place, whereas "home in on" and "hone in on" have the same meaning (if the latter means anything), it seems unlikely that a tendency to mistake valeur for malheur would go remarked long enough to become entrenched given how directly opposite they are — the observation that launched this question.

Between those points and the semantic overlap theory, I wouldn't stake my bet on this explanation.

  • Thank you! That was both very insightful and interesting, I commend the effort, you really come full circle with the answer. I have to say that about Bossu's and the context, I though personally this could have been Métis French but honestly I have no clue. Concerning phonology, I thought that when you put the phrase together and contract the de as in d'malheur, that first sound is just aggravating to pronounce but the change to valeur creates a huge semantic flip or shift which can't go unnoticed and therefore it's quite surprising. Your answer adds greatly to the topic. Thanks again. – user3177 May 29 '17 at 3:25
  • Btw, do you think the expression is in use in Ontario and Manitoba for instance? Thanks! – user3177 May 29 '17 at 3:29
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    Merci. Come to think of it, I never justified my rejecting the patois/Métis option. I assumed that the good French of the harangues was due to translation rather than to original expression, though it could also be due to paraphrase, of course. I really don't know enough about the period either. And whether "leur langue" would be used of the same language but a different dialect at that time. For Ontario/Manitoba, I can't remember hearing it, but my day-to-day data is limited... if it doesn't slip my mind I'll ask a reliable source I'm seeing later in the week. – Luke Sawczak May 29 '17 at 4:10
  • Thanks! Your analysis and method yields insight and your answer along with the others as well as comments makes for a great read on the topic. Many questions won't have definitive answers but I believe discussing that source and the famous letter shed some light on some kind of misunderstanding here and will provide something for people who want to research this further down the line. Thanks again! – user3177 Jul 4 '17 at 22:12
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This is primarily to say that I don't see the use at issue as having come from the moving 1756 use, and but for its length, this "answer' would have been posted where it belongs, as a comment:

Not only do I not see that 1756 use as a possible source of the "C'est dommage" sense, but I even have issues with Capt. Bossu’s interpretation of it (in fact, I even question why Bossu felt any need at all to tell his readers what "de valeur" meant to the brave father).

Mainly because of the “Mais” that begins the 2d sentence, I interpret those words using their literal, not-needing-explanation sense of “bravoure/courage/vaillance”:

“My son is facing his death with courage, BUT (please spare him for the following reasons.)”

If the father had been “merely” expressing how

“fort/extraordinaire”

his son’s death is/would be, then I think someone with such a good command of French would have perhaps introduced the reasons for the death being "fort/extraordinaire," not with "Mais," but rather with “Parce que/Car/Puisque”:

"That my son faces death is extraordinary/an exaggeration BECAUSE (of the following reasons....)"

In addition to the use of “mais,” I’m tempted to question the good Captain's "fort/extraordinaire" interpretation also because I don't think it's impossible that he, and his intended audience, with their arguably less spiritual, “western” understanding of “bravery/courage/valor” might not have been able to fully grasp what those concepts meant & how important they were to the Collapissa/Acolapissa People.

Another possible interpretation of "C'est de valeur" that would, in my opinion, also jive better with "MAIS" than Bossu's intrepretation could be

"It's justifiable/understandable/right that my son must die, BUT [please spare him...",

but I still opt for the "with courage" interpretation, which would have required no clarifying footnote, in my opinion.


To make this more than just a statement of the issues that I have with Captain Bossu's interpretation, I will add that agree with the last two comments on this Wordreference thread where the possibility of a fear of mentioning the word "malheur" (born of the old adage «Ne parle pas de malheur ») might be behind using "de valeur" instead.

(a possible connection with the negative notion of "dévalorisation/C'est dévalorisant" also crossed my mind, but I like the "malheur"="de valeur" explanation much more)

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    Thanks! I agree that reading in the expression to mean fort, extraordinaire is poorly substantiated, but imho even if it were it wouldn't explain how from this you would end up with something that's not even the opposite but something completely different really; yet Luke has provided examples of striking contrast between meaning over time. But how and why would this unusual morphing of valeur "pick up" and become useful in Quebec French? It's much easier to buy into a sound change of malheur because of euphonie or something like that indeed imho. Maybe s.o. has modern Qc specific mat. – user3177 May 28 '17 at 3:25
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    @deLaDauversière Is this "c'est dommage" use USUALLY used by someone to chastise someone else for disappointing the speaker/not doing what the speaker had hoped? (or is it used equally just to express general disappointment w/a situation not necessarily caused by another person)? If usually for chastising, then maybe "C'est de valeur que" could be expressing the same disappointment, veiled by sarcasm, that in Eng is sometimes expressed by "I'm not [at all] surprised that ..../I guess it's only fitting that ..." with "valeur" kind of meaning "fitting/not surprising [considering how you are]." – Papa Poule May 28 '17 at 23:00
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    Thanks, I didn't see your comment. Well, sometimes it's really close to it's a shame... : c'est de valeur mais on va devoir y aller là, you could say sth. like that when you're leaving, and without further context we don't know why you do, whether sth. happened or it's just emphasis for the good time you were having, and despite that you have to go; disappointment maybe indeed. If someone makes up a bunch of excuses for not doing sth., then one could answer c'est bien de valeur a bit as in that's life, is that sarcasm with an appeal to resignation with mais, it's not clear to me. – user3177 May 29 '17 at 16:50
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    I believe my uncertainty also stems in part from the many subtle differences between the meaning of fâcheux, malheureux, ennuyeux, grand dommage, regrettable, triste, and pénible which this expression can leverage. There is lots of food for thought. Thanks again. – user3177 May 29 '17 at 16:55
  • @deLaDauversière I'm just glad you asked the question because otherwise I'd have surely taken being told "C'est [bien] de valeur que tu t'en ailles si vite" to mean "It's a [damn] good thing that you're leaving so soon!" & wondered all the way home if I was drunker/more obnoxious than I realized! Granted, when used with "mais" I'd at least have had a little sign that something didn't jive w/my "good thing" interpretation, but with "que" I'd surely have taken it as "Good riddance!" (ps: your "resignation" is exactly what I was after [w/a shot of face-saving, "I thought as much" sarcasm]) – Papa Poule May 29 '17 at 19:42
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Deux réponses très détaillées et j’en ai malheureusement peu à ajouter. J’y vais quand même, ne serait-ce que pour faire démolir mon idée sur la chose afin qu’elle ne me tiraillât plus.

Nous avons ici un allié des Français, dont la langue maternelle n’est pourtant assurément point le français. Il dit aux Français que « c’est de valeur que [s]on fils meurt ». Cette utilisation de valeur pourrait-elle être due à un quiproquo passé par rapport à la signification exacte du mot ? Un fusil, par exemple, a une valeur par le fait qu’il coûte un certain montant, et aussi parce qu’il change le quotidien en facilitant la chasse. La qualité positive de valeur aurait-elle pu échapper à ce peuple du fait que la valeur en tant que montant de son achat constitue plutôt une perte de leur part, contrebalancée par un gain dans sa future utilisation ? De là, le concept de valeur aurait bien pu en effet être évalué comme une mesure de conséquence sur le monde, plus que comme une mesure du bien ou du mieux offert par la chose de valeur.

Puisque les conséquences de la mort d’un jeune homme et grand chasseur sont importantes, ils auraient très bien pu alors indiquer que cet événement avait une valeur, qu’il était de valeur. On pourrait imaginer aujourd’hui une description qui affirmerait simplement que c’est quelque chose, neutre quant à la qualité de l’évènement, mais clair quant à son importance.

Il me semble que l’explication offerte qui jette un pont entre « c’est de valeur » et « c’est d’importance » est la plus intéressante, mais en parlant d’extension plus ou moins naturelle, elle me semble mouler la réalité en un flot continu, en une métamorphose de proche en proche. De la même manière que l’économie ou la physique quantique procèdent par sauts sans états intermédiaires, je pourrais très bien accepter une cassure nette due à une mésinterprétation qui aurait fait boule de neige. La preuve qu’un quiproquo linguistique est possible serait l’analyse même que fait Bossu de cette expression dans le patois des Collapissas : la mort d’un fils est-elle forte ou extraordinaire ? Ne serait-elle pas plutôt de conséquence ?

Au final, cependant, je ne saurais même pas comment retracer l’existence de cette acception depuis ses origines jusqu’à nous. Je sais lancer des hyposthèses, mais les étudier et les confronter à la réalité, c’est une autre paire de manches.

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