While there are many lines from “Spinal Tap” that are quoted in my house, the line that is quoted the most often has to be, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever.” We use it mostly when we want to comment on one of the pithy pronouncements that are so often made by the teenagers who drift in and out our house, pronouncements along the lines of, “Work is hard.” (That’s why they call it “work,” son). Or, my personal favorite, “School is for idiots.” (Yes, it is…that’s why we sent you there.)
Until recently, I was quite content with this line; in many ways it was (and still is) the perfect way to explain the teenage years, the perfect summation of that period of time when you are smart enough to realize that everyone around you—teachers, parents, cops—is not as smart as you once thought they were, but not yet clever enough to realize that you, too, fit into that “Dumber than originally anticipated” category. It was short, to the point, and, all too often, could be delivered in a bad British accent. What more could you want from a phrase? Well, as it turns out, the more that I wanted was actually a less, because, as I learned recently, there is a phrase that sums up the teenage experience so much more succinctly (in a quarter of the words, no less), and, better yet, can be delivered in a bad French accent. The phrase I’m referring to is l’age ingrat.
Of course it’s French: what is it about other languages that makes them so adept at coming up with a single phrase that so perfectly describes a unique situation? Think about it: the Germans have kummelspeck (“the weight you gain from unhappy eating”—literally “grief bacon”) and the Rapa Nui have tingo (to borrow from someone repeatedly until they have nothing left). I suppose it’s true that sometimes we do manage to come up with the perfect words in English, too: consider for a moment poogle, a word that describes the act of accessing the internet (usually via smartphone) while you are using the toilet. But still, when it comes to turning the perfect phrase, I think we have to bow down to other languages quite often. Like with l’age ingrat.
I wasn’t able to find an exact translation for l’age ingrat online—the closest I could find were guesses that it was derived from either “ungracious,” “ungrateful,” or a combination of the two; this is actually even better than an exact definition, because those two words, both together and apart, describe nearly every teenager I know perfectly. Asking native French speakers was no more of a help: although they all knew what I was saying (after correcting my pronunciation), they were at a loss to give an exact meaning, other than saying, “it is that age, that awkward, obnoxious, helpless, arrogant, childish, grow-up age. You know: the teenage years.”
And I did know. Maybe that’s why we don’t have a word to describe it: all we really need to say is teenager, and instantly everyone knows what we are talking about. Still, sometimes the word fails to convey exactly what we mean. We say “teenagers,” and people hear “annoying,” but what we really meant was “teenager” in the “unhappy, miserable” sense.
Perhaps what we really need is to have a tonal language, where nuances like that can be expressed with a rising or falling accent. (Although, if you’ve ever listened to a mother asking her nearly grown child to “STOP leaving your wet TOWEL on the FLOOR!” then you know we have something of a tonal language already.)
Unfortunately, another part of “l’age ingrat” is the ability to be completely tone deaf—at least where parents are concerned.