ien, nothing, is a fascinating word. It came to my attention recently in a clip of a French paradoy of a politician, and then in an Édith Piaf song. (Her first name is said [Ay deet] and last name is pronounced [Pea-afh].) Before we get to those examples, let’s think about nothing for a minute. Ok, minute up. Ha ha!
READER: Must you?
ME: Oh, lighten up, Gentle Reader. Nothing can be as scary, boring, or as interesting as nothing.
First of all, that we have a word for nothing, which is what rien means, is curious. Couldn’t nothing remain what it is? Undisclosed by staying nothing? In Math that is what happened for a long time, until Zero came on the scene. Scientific American gives us this brief timeline of zero: “The first recorded zero appeared in Mesopotamia around 3 B.C. The Mayans invented it independently circa 4 A.D. It was later devised in India in the mid-fifth century, spread to Cambodia near the end of the seventh century, and into China and the Islamic countries at the end of the eighth. Zero reached western Europe in the 12th century.” I turn your attention to a book I love and lingered over for many months: Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife.
Let’s look at how the word is used in French to help us appreciate Édith Piaf’s song, “Je ne regrette rien” (I regret nothing).
First, there are two ways of saying “nothing at all” in French. One is rien de tout (nothing at all). The other is rien de rien. Now if you were going to write a song, doesn’t rien de rien pack something of a lovely punch just by repetition?
The French are quite playful with the idea of rien. Deux fois rien, literally, two times nothing, relies on Math to understand that any number times nothing remains nothing. (Except in French school if you have no bananas as we saw in an earlier post.)
However, deux fois rien can also mean “next to nothing.” Ah, there is some slippage here.
And if you think that is bad, look at what happens to trois fois rien. This is literally three times nothing, which should mean exactly nothing. Here is an example of where it suddenly, somehow, becomes a gracious plenty.
Here’s the French sentence, and notice trois fois rien. «Soucieux de respecter les produits et les saveurs au maximum, pour lui ‘trois fois rien,’ c’est déjà beaucoup ».
Now look at the translation: “Always intent on respecting products and flavours, for him ‘three times nothing’ is already a lot.”
Mon dieu! Where did the Math go? How in the world can three times nothing be a lot??!
A French politician (ha ha, already funny or probably tragic) offers a discourse on what to do if you have no idea of an answer to a question. He maintains you talk about nothing. And he literally proceeds to do just that. After batting around deux fois rien, he gets to trois fois rien and points out that we have already arrived at something. He certainly understands politicians.
A tiny person, measuring 4 feet 8 inches, she was adored in France. Piaf was a stage name that meant sparrow. This is what we learn about her: “Édith Piaf was a French singer best known for performing songs in the cabaret and modern chanson genres. She is widely regarded as France’s greatest popular singer and one of the most celebrated performers of the 20th century.” She led a difficult life, abandoned by her mother, living at her grandmother’s brothel, early blindness, chronic pain from car accidents. You might have heard of her song, “La Vie en Rose,” meaning seeing life through rose-colored glasses.
I hope you’re in the mood for Édith Piaf’s song, “Je Ne Regrette Rien.” I looked at the translations in English and I’m, like, what in the world? So I am humbly presenting my own. I’ll first translate as I go and then give you a chance to appreciate the song without me.
Je Ne Regrette Rien
Non, rien de rien (No, nothing at all)
Non, je ne regrette rien (No, I regret nothing)
Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait (Neither the good that’s been done to me)
Ni le mal (Nor the bad)
Tout ça m’est bien égal. (It’s all the same to me.)
Non, rien de rien (Non, rien de rien— See, you can speak French !)
Non, je ne regrette rien.
C’est payé, balayé, oublié (It’s paid for, swept away and forgotten.)
Je me fous du passé. (I’ve had it with the past.)
Avec mes souvenirs (With my memories)
J’ai allumé le feu. (I lit a fire.)
Mes chagrins, mes plaisirs (My grief, my pleasures)
Je n’ai plus besoin d’eux. (I don’t need them any more.)
Balayé les amours (I swept out the lovers)
Avec leurs trémolos (With their trembling)
Balayé pour toujours (Swept away forever)
Je repars à zero. (I’m starting again at zero)
Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait
Ni le mal
Tout ça m’est bien égal
Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien.
Car ma vie (Because my life)
Car mes joies (Because my joys)
Ça commence avec toi. (It all begins with you.)
Now, how about the song ?
You can hear Mme Piaf give credit to the composer Charles Dumont, in 1956, with lyrics by Michel Vaucaire. Édith Piaf’s 1960 recording of this song spent seven weeks atop the French Singles & Airplay Reviews chart.
Perhaps you remember the first word in Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot?
READER: Could it be, “rien”?
ME: You are so right, Gentle Reader. It begins with nothing. And how perfect for this particular play. The play is put in the category of the theatre of the absurd, which is defined this way by renowned theatre critic Monsieur Encyclopedia Britannica. “There is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952), plot is eliminated, and a timeless, circular quality emerges as two lost creatures, usually played as tramps, spend their days waiting—but without any certainty of whom they are waiting for or of whether he, or it, will ever come.”
READER: Voilà! The play is about nothing and nothing happens.
ME: Yes. But it is funny. So that happens.
Now let’s look at the play’s opening sentence: “Rien à faire.” Rien, we have determined, means nothing. (That’s still funny.) And faire means “to do.” So basically, “nothing to do.” Ah, but Beckett translates it himself as, “nothing to be done.” Now, as I think I have mentioned before, I don’t like that translation. Granted, it’s Beckett’s play. When is the last time you actually said, “Nothing to be done?” But rien à faire in French is said often and with a shrug. “Can’t do anything about that.” Or, “Nothing we can do about it.” Would, “Nothing can be done,” be an improvement? Or, “Can’t help it?”
For our purposes, when we sing in the shower, we can belt out, “Non, rien de rien,” looking for the happy resolution at the end of the song, with a new lover. Except, how likely is that to succeed? It’s at least possible. As possible as Godot presenting himself. So, here’s to Godot! “Non, rien de rien.“
P.S. I also wanted to add a note here. The Gaza / Israel conflict is on our hearts and minds. And I think that while we feel helpless in many ways, one thing we can do is deepen our understanding of the conflict. To that end, an Irish friend of mine suggested a book called Apeirogon by Column McCann.
In his novel, “Apeirogon,” published in 2020, McCann tells the true story of two men whose daughters were killed in the Middle East conflict. One father is Palestinian and the other father is Israeli.
Literature can accomplish a lot as we try to grasp the human experience all the way from nothing to tragedy.