Vigilance — Cleanliness

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The trash receptacles on Paris streets consist of suspended transparent plastic bags, printed with two words in large black letters: VIGILANCE (= "vigilance") on top, and PROPRETÉ (= "cleanliness") underneath.

The bags used to be green, but are now clear — and the container of curved metal spokes is new — but the VIGILANCE / CLEANLINESS message has been there for while. And to the extent that I noticed it, I interpreted this motto as a quaint cultural survival, some long-ago authority figure wagging a monitory textual forefinger at the prospect of litter.

But another ubiqitous bit of current Parisian signage is the Vigipirate notice:

The accompanying text makes it clear that this is an anti-terrorist warning. The "vigipirate" neologism always makes me think of le capitaine Haddock, for some reason:


But anyhow, about the ten thousandth time that I processed the "vigi-" back-formation, it occurred to me to wonder whether the trash-can signage was connected socio-politically as well as morpho-phonologically.  And indeed the French Wikipedia article on sac-poubelle (= "garbage bag") explains that

… l'application du plan Vigipirate a entraîné en France l'utilisation dans les lieux publics de sacs transparents, dissuadant ainsi d'éventuels terroristes d'y déposer un paquet suspect.

… the application of the Vigipirate plan brought to France the use in public places of transparent [trash] bags, thereby dissuading would-be terrorists from placing suspicious packages in them.

The name "Vigipirate" seems to date from 1995, and the transparent trash bags were apparently a response to a trash-can bomb in that year (Marlise Simons, "Bomb near Arc de Trimphe Wounds 17", NYT 8/18/1995).

So much for my image of a stern 19th-century administrator urging us to watch out for litterbugs.

Also, poubelle turns out to be the name of the person (Eugène Poubelle) who introduced garbage cans to Paris. So it might have been M. Poubelle who counseled vigilance. But it wasn't.


  1. Mark Mandel said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 1:19 am

    No relation to po'boy, then….

  2. theo the kraut said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 1:48 am

    O brave new world, that has such dustbins in 't!

  3. cM said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 4:59 am

    I remember the time just before the bags, when most if not all of the public trash cans in Paris were welded shut "to prevent bombings", which always seemed a bit like magical thinking to me.

    The cute-sounding vigipirate (I tend to imagine a merry band of bombers, hey-ho) sounds totally inappropriate to my ears, considering the seriousness of the subject. So thanks for the Haddock association – it fits perfectly: The bags most likely work best against all those nefarious comic-book plots.

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 5:19 am

    Not as quaint a cultural survival as the message that appeared on litter bins in Edinburgh until about 1960: "The amenity of our streets is recommended to your care."

  5. The Haddockian argot, and licorice | Arnold Zwicky's Blog said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 5:21 am

    […] recent Language Log posting by Mark Liberman ("Vigilance – Cleanliness") reproduced a cartoon of Captain […]

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 5:23 am

    The price of cleanliness is eternal vigilance.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 7:52 am

    Having been brought up on Jimmy Shand music and similar, some accordion piece along the lines of the Poobell Polka springs inexorably to mind.

  8. Oona Houlihan said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 8:13 am

    In a centralized state such as France, I would have expected the trash cans nation-wide then to have been changed to the new design. But while I have not been to Paris in a long while, the rest of France seems to be totally unaware and wouldn't you suspect the bombers to take "their business elsewhere" under such circumstances? Nor has Munich, where the devastating October festival bombing occurred under similar circumstances (the investigation has just been re-opened recently) decades ago, adopted such a scheme or any other country for that matter. Didn't think Poubelle was a real name until now, but maybe the "poo" association has led me down the path of "vulgar" etymology …

  9. Roger Lustig said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 9:54 am–smart move, changing a vowel.

    I wonder what other people named Poubelle have done? Imagine having your name, er, trashed like that.

  10. mollymooly said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 12:30 pm

    To me, "VIGILANCE — PROPRETÉ" has always sounded like a slogan from Vichy, a postscript to "Travail, famille, patrie".

  11. Robert Furber said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 7:57 pm

    I recall that there were a number of incidents where the IRA placed bombs in litter bins in London in the early 90s. The bins in train stations in London were changed to be roughly of this type, but without the bars protecting the inner bag. Consequently the bag would not infrequently be separated from the top of the bin, and people would simply place litter through the bagless upper ring section, letting it fall onto the ground, assuming that honour had been satisfied by making the best attempt to dispose of the rubbish.

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