Système D

Heard on France Info this morning (but can't link to it since like most French newspapers and radios they do a terrible job in promoting their content online) that just before the first launch of Ariane II (the second version of the European space launcher from Arianespace), some engineers were concerned about a possible helium leakage at the end of a small pipe. Unfortunately they did not have any means to figure this out. One of them then thought about using a condom. No one had one at hand on the launch pad, so one of them went out to the pharmacy and asked for a box of condoms. When he asked for a receipt, the pharmacist told him to stop pulling his leg. The engineer had to explain why he needed a condom and successfully got both the condoms and a receipt and went back to the launcher. Applied at the end of the pipe, the condom slowly inflated and thus proved that there was a leakage indeed. From this day and for many years after, condoms found their way into the toolbox of Arianespace engineers.

This brings me the opportunity for a new French lesson and a follow-up to my piece about bricolage. What this engineer did is known to all French as "le système D". D stands for débrouille or, in slang, démerde. Débrouille and its verbal form débrouiller mean literally "un-scramble" and "getting out of scramble", but in a context that is very close to the English DIY. When you hear "débrouillez-vous", it basically means that it is your own problem and that you should not expect any help but your own to figure out how to take care of it. And when you hear "démerdez-vous" it means that... well, débrouillez-vous to figure that one out for yourself (hint.)

Système D and bricolage are so tightly related that it is a chicken-and-egg situation in France. It is hard to understand if the French taste for bricolage comes from our sense of système D or the other way around. Confronted to such a problem, American engineers would have called for a meeting to move the situation up and down the hierarchy, German ones would have rushed to see if the procedure to the solution was in the manuals, while the French engineers did, in their natural système D way, put a condom on the stick! My dear American and German friends, do not get upset about this little caricature, since it actually only tells about how the French generally behave regarding hierarchy, procedures and manuals when confronted to a problem.

4 Comments

Thank you for posting this. I needed to translate 'système D' into English and your post told me exactly what I needed to know!

Hi, thanks for this also, I am translating a French movie into Slovak and was lost with this expression, so I am joining Janet in saying, thank you and I will try to debrouiller-moi with the rest of the text on my own.

Hi - just curious, how would you translate 'système D' ? Is there an idiomatic or slang equivalent or nearish equivalent in English? All I can come out with is 'the system of getting by through comman sense'. It is a bit infuriating that most bilingual dictionaries don't attempt to offer a slang translation of a slang term where no obvious one presents itself.

DIY (pun intended, and yes that's the closest I can find ;-)

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