Alouette: What It Means (It’s not as nasty as you’d think!)

Alouette is NOT a Mean Song… REALLY!

Most people think the French Canadian song, “Alouette” is very mean, once they learn what it means in English. It sounds like it’s about someone taunting a bird… “Lark, nice lark… I’ll pluck out your feathers… I’ll pluck your eyes.. I’ll pluck your wings…” It sounds really cruel.

Picture of a Lark for Alouette

I asked Monique Palomares in France about it. She wrote back, “‘Alouette, gentille alouette’ is not a song about mean people who want to cruelly pluck a lark alive. Larks were and are considered as game, so people would FIRST kill them, then pluck them, then cook them and at last eat them.”

We don’t eat larks in the US, so most Americans at least, think the song is mean. Now we see it’s really not! It’s as if we bought a chicken or a turkey from a farm and had to pluck the feathers out ourselves. While doing the chore we might have sung a song like “Alouette”… at least in the olden days we may have.

Here are the lyrics to the song in French with an English translation. Consider them with that in mind…

Refrain
Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.

Je te plumerai le bec,
Je te plumerai le bec,
Et le bec, et le bec,
Alouette, Alouette !
Ah ! ah ! ah ! ah !

(refrain)

Je te plumerai les yeux,
Je te plumerai les yeux,
Et les yeux, et les yeux,
Et le bec, et le bec,
Alouette, Alouette !
Ah ! ah ! ah ! ah !

(refrain)

Je te plumerai la tête,
Je te plumerai la tête
Et la tête, et la tête
Et les yeux, et les yeux,
Et le bec, et le bec,
Alouette, Alouette !
Ah ! ah ! ah ! ah !

Je te plumerai le cou…

Je te plumerai le dos…

…les ailes… le ventre…

…les pattes… la queue…

Translation

Chorus
Lark, nice lark
Lark, I’ll pluck you.

I’ll pluck your bill
I’ll pluck your bill
And your bill, and your bill
Lark, lark. Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!

(Chorus)

I’ll pluck your eyes
I’ll pluck your eyes
And your eyes, and your eyes
And your bill, and your bill
Lark, lark. Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!

(Chorus)

I’ll pluck your head
I’ll pluck your head
And your head, and your head,
And your eyes, and your eyes
And your bill, and your bill
Lark, lark. Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!

(Chorus)

I’ll pluck your neck…

I’ll pluck your back…

I’ll pluck your wings… your belly…

… your legs… your tail…

You can hear Alouette, gentile alouette on Mama Lisa’s World Canada page.

Monique wrote, “This reference to larks being cooked and eaten can also be found in the circle game song ‘Bonjour Guillaume’. It’s a circle game song that goes…”

Bonjour Guillaume, as-tu bien déjeuné?
Oh oui madame, j’ai mange du pâté,
Du pâté d’alouette
Guillaume et Guillaumette,
Chacun s’embrassera,
Guillaume restera.

Which translates literally as:

Good morning, William, did you have a good breakfast?
Oh, yes, madam, I had some pâté,
Lark pâté, William and Wilma
Everyone hugs one another
William will stay.

You can hear Bonjour Guillaume on Mama Lisa’s World France page. There you’ll also find the instructions for this circle game.

I found reference to eating lark in an old American cook book! Yet we have no memory of cooking or eating larks! So it must have been a long time ago.

Thanks to Monique for explaining about the meaning of the song “Alouette”.

Mama Lisa

NOTE from October 2010: I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels by the Irish writer Jonathan Swift (published in 1726). There’s mention in the book of eating larks. Larks seem to have been eaten in the United Kingdom and Ireland in the past too.

This article was posted on Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 at 4:16 pm and is filed under Alouette, Canada, Canadian Children's Songs, Children's Songs, Countries & Cultures, English, France, French, French Kids Songs, Languages, Mama Lisa, United Kingdom, USA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

89 Responses to “Alouette: What It Means (It’s not as nasty as you’d think!)”

  1. J Says:

    The song is sweet, the lyrics, uh..not so much. One way to make it light-hearted would be to change the lyrics. Something like, ” Little Firefly, gentle little Firefly, little Firefly, how you sweety glow..” then make up more lyrics about animals, plants, fish, fowl, insects, etc. Celebrate and describe them to the tune of an old chestnut with out of date lyrics. Why not? It’s not like any ones livelihood is at stake, other than the larks.

  2. Monique Says:

    @ Dale: our lark is Eurasian skylark = Alauda arvensis, “alouette des champs” = literally “lark of the fields”.

  3. Dale C. Davies Says:

    Hi Mama Lisa this is Dale. My Grandfather on my Mother Side was enlisted into the French Army at the age of 15, this being the First World War! He went into the Trenches and went through it all, Shelling, Mustard Gas, Chlorine Gas, Snipers, the Work’s. Five years later walks out of the Trench’s after everything thing is said and done! Not a scratch, chest full of Medals and all there mentally and physically! then meets my Mother’s Mother and falls hopelessly in Love having seven children! Unfortunately in the Second World War, while my Mother’s Mother was coming home one evening she was killed Unexpectedly by a V2 Rocket! That led to my Mother’s Father to start Drinking, and within a month time he developed a stomach Ulcer (as he could not live with such Broken Heart) that the Ulcer broke and he bleed all his life’s blood and die then and there leaving my Mother Orphaned at the age of 12. Truly the French are Romantics at Heart. All I know is my Mother’s last name in French was Chevalier Gambette (Knight) if that’s correct? Well there you go! Sincerely -Dale C. Davies- P.S. you have my email – would like very much on how you can help me learn Parisian French! Please Do Drop me a line on how? Thanks Mama Lisa (never too old to learn)

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I do not like the idea of being cruel to animals. I ADORE ALL animals and I really have a way with them. I do not like the lyrics to this song and I would change them all. I REALLY love the French language, and have been looking up some French songs. I was really wondering what the lyrics meant because if you watch the episode on season three on the hit TV series Liv and Maddie, Liv is trying to learn French for an interview for Voltage, her TV show that she shoots up until season four. She tries everything including labeling everything in her home with Post-It notes with the French translation to what the item is. In the end the only thing that helps her to speak French is this song. I was looking up the lyrics and now I wish I had not. I really wish the lyrics are different.

  5. Arlene Says:

    My married last name is Lalouette! I grew up in Canada singing this song; We taught our kids this song — they loved it — and were delighted to learn body parts in French. My mother was raised on a farm, and though she herself was German, remembers singing this song while she completed the (what we ‘softies’ now think of as gruesome) task of plucking the chicken for dinner. Like others have said, there was no grocery store to purchase clean, skinless chicken breast wrapped in plastic and served on a tray — chickens are not born that way. Even still, when I had my own young children I was a bit sensitive about belting out a tune about plucking a lark… So, my generous, kind, but eye-rolling father-in-law (also raised on a farm), offers this substitution: Skip plumerai and substitute caressé, as in Je te CARESSÉ la tête… it means cuddle, hug. Awww… that’s sweet right!? But just so ya know, my now 16 y/o son (Frère Jacques) thinks the substitution was ridiculous, and that even he knew early on it was a ‘farm song.’ He too, is a fine person — never been cruel to animals, loves his crazy mama, and says he’ll teach it to his kids one day too. I asked which version…? He said the original — but that he’ll also share the hilarious story of how HIS Grandpère offered THEIR Grandmère a softie version! Family comedy! Now, let’s all laugh out loud with our best French accents… ahh houuu houuu houuu!

  6. Roxanne Vanderford Says:

    And “Rock-a-bye Baby” is ok??? (that screams child neglect and cruelty) We are all a little messed up by Nursery Rhymes and Children’s songs. Time to grow up and move on. Just sayin’

  7. Dyann Says:

    Hi. Know i’m late to the posting party on this, lol. I learned the song 45 yrs ago, in Kindergarten, never had a clue what it meant & truthfully, didn’t really care. It wasn’t until I rewatched a Ghost Whisperer episode & this song was part of the plot, that I became interested as to its meaning. A character, Eli (a Shrink) was offended, because of “pluck your head”& the ghost for that episode was in a mental institution. They didn’t even mention birds, lol, but it made me curious.

    At first, I too was rather horrified, as from the literal English translation, it DOES sound as if they are taunting and threatening to do this to a live bird. Then I thought better of that, seeing the age of the piece & remembering other “chore songs” my Ooma taught me. Some of them were pretty grisly too, as are MANY Nursery Rhymes, if you know the history on them. But being a meat-eater who has had to pluck/eviscerate birds to eat, (which is WAY less gruesome than having to pull the fur off a mammal, I can understand why there would be a use for this back then, as that chore would have fallen to the smallest children & this gives them a list to go by, as they went along, plus the tune is catchy & sticks in your head, making it also easy for non French speakers to learn as an intro to a foreign language & remember. It also teaches& reminds children that meat comes from animals, you’d be surprised how many don’t know this.

    So, while I no longer find it repulsive& can laud it for teaching the body parts of many different animals in latter verses, not just the Lark, but as an American speaker I’d rather sing it in French just for the catchy tune, as in English, it does still leave me a bit unsettled. *snicker*

    But heck, there are worse ones (as others have mentioned) like “Rock-a-bye-baby”, “Swallowed by a boa” or how about; “Sing a song of sixpence”, “Nana Nenê”, “There was an old lady” ,”goosey-goosey-gander”,” Duérmete Niño”, “ladybug, ladybug, fly away home”,”Dodo Titit”, “Who killed cock robin”, “Bayu Bayushki Bayu”, “Lady of Niger”& 2 of the creepiest ones about a scary mom & stranger danger, “Ninja Nanna”, & ” Bíum,Bíum,Bambaloó”… ALL of these have disturbing words/imagery of their times or punishments in them for not sleeping or listening to their parents ! I won’t even go into all the others that sound nice, until you know their history (London bridges, etc). Yikes, hehe

    But life isn’t always pretty, sanitised, or for many, in Styrofoam packages. Sometimes we need to impart important knowledge to kids, but without frightening them so much they’ll never leave the house, so we do it in a more gentle way they’ll remember, nursery rhymes, fables, songs.

    Over the years many of them imparted views/skills/knowledge that today’s kids (mostly) don’t need, or shouldn’t still have (inequality,etc) or don’t need to know or the ‘lesson’ part just gets lost over time, but the ditties themselves remain.

    If you have a problem with them,such as “Alouette”, don’t teach them to your kids, or explain your own views on it to the child (IF they are at an age where they will understand it).

    But, for me, lastly, there’s two that stuck with me, in a bad way, since childhood.The poem “The little Peach” about the death of 2 children, John & his Sister Sue, from eating a peach (which I refused to try for years! lol) & the horrific prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep”… That one gave me & children around the world, nightmares (I created a different version of THAT as I refused to pass the original atrocity onward).
    Words are powerful.
    [*grin*- sorry for the novel length “comment”]

  8. rainy Says:

    Thank you for posting the history behind this song. I grew up singing this due to my French-Canadian Grandmother’s insistence and her childhood memories in Quebec.

  9. Kia Says:

    Alright babies, it’s just a freaking song. It’s really catchy, and uh… has some suggestive content. While I also feel like it’s old so I have to respect it, it’s so funny! I mean, when I first looked up the meaning behind Alouette, Google said that many believe that a kid was woken up by a lark, so the kid threatens to pluck off his neck, feathers, BACK, beak, etc. I was DYING laughing!!! Am I the only one who feels this way?

  10. Ari Says:

    I am offended by Kia. This is a CRUEL song and NO ONE should be LAUGHING at it! And anyway, how do you respect something and LAUGH IN ITS FACE at the same time?!

  11. Peter Says:

    No, Kia, you are not the only one who feels that way. I think it’s a really pretty song, but it is also hilarious.

  12. Patrick Says:

    What an unexpected song this is. As a piano teacher, I’ve taught this for many years without knowing either the French words (my French is truly merde!!) or the English translation. I will continue to teach it, but have chosen alternative lyrics to find a way that is not offensive to anyone. Those wishing to explore further are in for an interesting discovery.

  13. Kevin Says:

    This article is making me hungry now that I know the translations.

  14. Britany Says:

    Here’s an idea, don’t eat animals. Maybe just maybe the song makes you feel bad because you actually feel bad about eating animals. And the song doesn’t help you ignore that thought. Maybe

  15. Kia Says:

    Just a song. Like I said: It’s JUST a song. Whoever Ari is, don’t get offended over me laughing. It’s not even like the song ever really even HAPPENED, anyway!

  16. 14 Says:

    heyo my dudes, i just wanna say Mama Lisa this song translation was very helpful so thank you Mama Lisa! Also, uhm, i like chez. btw, not that anyone cares, but imma go ahead and share (storytime) i got intrested in the origins of nursery rhymes and all that since i heard Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary because i wuv meh some history also its pretty interesting, not gonna lie. well it’s 2020 and we all gonna ded from coronavirus so i guess it doesnt really matter anyways. well then.

  17. Jacob Says:

    I have no problem with meat and I have no problem with the song’s existence. But I always thought this song was much nicer, about a bird flying and landing on the parts of the body. Even I think it’s gruesome and would not promote it for children — at least not children who eventually translate it. I rather know the bird is alive and happy in the end.

  18. em Says:

    some of you guys are freaking babies i’m pretty sure most of you are a adults so act like one yes it may sound like a cruel song but face it, thats where most of the meat you eat comes from. If you’re vegetarian i understand why’d you’d be upset, but for those of you who are upset and eat meat please stop hating on this song because that’s where your food comes from so suck it up and welcome to reality! love you guys!

  19. herrier Says:

    they used to sing it to pass the time when they harvested a bird

  20. Marie Says:

    I disagree with lists fair enough to people who eat meat but when it all comes down to that youse cant kill them quick enough I think its disgusting

  21. Marie Says:

    I agree with em meat eaters are just cannibals

  22. Marie Says:

    Theres people beating you around the bush for questions about it and taking the mick about it through technology that’s why I use very little of it and avoid cables

  23. Norma Says:

    Woke up this morning….with the words of the first line in my head…I am 75 now….luckily remembered how to spell it in French..and found all these comments. I truly had no idea what I was singing way back in time. Have never plucked a bird in my life. In my later years I have now eaten plenty small pigeons cos I have a hunter cousin. I really cannot believe all these comments on what I always thought was a simple song. Ah Life.

  24. PK Says:

    It’s a catchy song, but hard to dance to. Kudos to Mama Lisa for creating a post that has garnered a thread of comments spanning nearly a decade!

  25. Cayden Says:

    If your only justification for this song not being gruesome is because it’s something we do to eat, consider the fact that we don’t actually need protein from the meat of other animals to survive. There are other ways of getting protein in your diet, but I’m not here to convert anybody to a plant based diet.
    It’s all well and good that some of you learned this song as a child, and learned a little French from it and didn’t think anything of it, but times have changed. It’s easy for a child to look up something in a different language, translate it, and be traumatized by it. I’m an adult as well, I heard this song on Tom and Jerry sung by Nibbles the mouse as a kid, and like some of you, never gave it a second thought. Then today, I find a bunch of adults online arguing about if it’s an okay children’s song. It’s not. It’s still murder of a living creature. It doesn’t matter why. We as a society have evolved since this song was created, so stay with the times.

  26. John Switzer Says:

    Use a boiling tea kettle
    The feathers really come out readily

  27. Kent A Says:

    I cannot even count the number of birds I cleaned and dressed from about 10 years old and up. Yea dunking on hoot water makes pluckung the feathers much easier and after putting it over a flame (pan of lighted alcohol) will burn off the pin feathers. This is a great song. Too many people have no idea where there food comes from anymore.

  28. Audrey Says:

    Just because it involves plucking feathers off a bird, remember that they hunted birds for SURVIVAL. If I had to do as nasty a chore as that, I wouldn’t blame them for singing a song to distract them from the bird guts in front of them. Besides, the tune is catchy children like it, and it is educational! What’s not to like

  29. JOYCE A CHAPMAN Says:

    Always loved this song as a kid. Was singing it to my grandson and decided to remind myself of what it meant. It would seem that we don’t quite understand the cycle of life. Vegetarian? Fine. Meat eater? Fine. The thing is… animals are not vegetarians. They eat each other. It’s just the way it is. Law of the jungle. People eat animals. That’s just the way it is. Animals will kill and eat people if you happen to be in the wrong circumstances. If an animal was never killed for any reason we humans would probably have nowhere to live except “amongst” them because the earth would be overflowing with animals. As far as the song goes I would also imagine that if any of us lived in that day and time and couldn’t just run down to the store for our groceries but had the life they had we would be a tad more understanding. Our sensitivities might not be so delicate. Most of us including myself tend to adapt to many of the ideologies of the culture around us without considering how we would react if the shoe was on the other furry (no pun intended) foot of another time and place. As I observed society over the past year or so I hope we don’t end up walking in another person’s shoes to be more understanding.

  30. Sumiran Says:

    Shame on the poet of this song and people who support it the tune is good but the poem written is so inhumane and cruel

  31. Jim Says:

    Don’t these childishly worried adults have anything better to do than gripe about the historical events as if their complaining will solve a problem that they have imagined.

  32. Vera A Zimmerman Says:

    Oh, come on, People. It’s a children’s song meant to be funny and teach body parts. I learned it in Louisiana. We enjoyed pinching each body part with our fingers as we sang and laughing uproariously. We all turned out fine. By the way I’m 80 years old and have never killed or plucked a bird.

  33. KJ Says:

    I was taught this song in French class in elementary school in the 1960s. It was taught to help us remember the names of body parts. It’s 2021. Times change, perceptions change. I’m certainly not going to bash anyone for having an opinion about this song. The song was used to pass time while people had an unpleasant chore to perform in order to eat. I am not vegan or vegetarian. I am, like most primates, an omnivore who found the history interesting.

    Ring Around the Rosy, pocket fill of posy… not a pleasant song. It was taught to those of us who are older, and sang it on the playground with our friends. Did we know it was about the plague? No.
    Times change, perceptions change. History is history, it can not be changed.
    Rather than being self righteous and indignant about innocent songs sung by a different generation, put your energy into something more important.

  34. Adele Says:

    Some of us are vegetarians merely because we’ve developed allergies to meat…

  35. Adele Says:

    You want a truly dark song, listen to “Il était une bergère”. The shepherdess didn’t kill the cat to eat him. She killed him because she was mad at ONE thing he did (contaminate the cheese with his saliva). You shouldn’t kill animals (or people) because they did one bad thing. (Yes, Willy Wonka, I’m looking at you.)

  36. Ellen Says:

    It was a song of the time. Like Ring around the Rosie.

  37. Adele Says:

    Okay, I’ll admit. I don’t have meat allergies. But I believed I did at the time, and meat allergies are real. Look it up.

  38. Adele Says:

    Wait a minute. We should note that the breast of the bird, where most meat (and feathers!) are found, isn’t plucked. Clearly this is inexpert work.

  39. J.Hermann Says:

    Back in 1975, my second grade teacher taught our entire whole class “Alouette” for part of a class presentation on the US bicentennial. We must have rehearsed a lot because whilst I know only a teensy bit of French (“avec” yes & “un Schweppes”, but no birds or beaks) I can still sing it word for word. Mrs. Boise never explained what it was about though and although I was curious, I was also shy. I’d forgotten about it over the years.

    But today I watched a couple of inmates have a nice little chitchat with Netflix’s Lupin and whistle the tune as they walked away. Obviously something nasty, I thought..but what is that familiar tune? And it all came flying back to me.

    Unlike back in the 2nd grade, I could now access an inconspicuous translation. (fwiw–google translate does not fully appreciate one singing the words) but the translation startled me. I mean.. ok yes in that particular prison drama.. but who the fork just makes up a cherry little song about slowly plucking a bird apart? And how did it become popular enough to teach to young school children with their pant cuffs tucked into tube socks?

    I will never know all the answers, but your thoughtful explanation goes a long way.

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