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The familiar noun mémère, derived from the concept de mère ("of mother") and pronounced "may mehr," has a bit of a split personality: It can be used in a very positive sense, and it can be used in quite a negative sense.
This seems to be the most common usage of the term mémère in French. To families with an aging or aged grandmother, it is a term of endearment for a loved one who deserves this long-awaited honorific. It is the name children give to their grandmother. It is, in short, a term of love and respect. When used in direct address, there is no article, as in Je t'aime mémère! ("I love you, grandma!) And that's the way it is, for the most part, in French, French Canadian, and Cajun.
In that positive context, it can mean, in English: "granny, grandmother, grandma, old dear."
Because the concept of a respected grandmother is so ingrained in French culture, it has many French synonyms: mémé (the often used short form of mémère), grand-mère, grand-maman, mamie (often used as mamie et papi ("grandma and grandpa"), bonne-maman, aïeule ("grandmother, forebear, ancestor").
Less frequently, mémère is derogatory when it refers to someone who is not related to you. It becomes quite offensive when you are not referring to someone specific.
Mémère can refer negatively to "an old stay-at-home woman" or to "a corpulent, lazy woman" (insulting). It is very often associated with vieille in the pejorative sense, as in vieille mémère or vieille mamie.
The negative meaning of mémère can also be an old woman who is "a gossip"; the verb is mémèrer, which means "to gossip" or "to be chatty."
A French synonym for the very pejorative sense of mémère could be une vieille dondon (an old fat person). In Canada, a very negative synonym would be une personne bavarde et indiscrète; une commère (a nasty gossip who attacks the reputation of others); commérer is the verb "to gossip").
Examples and Expressions
- (Familiar) Faut pas pousser mémère / mémé / grand-mère dans les orties. > You shouldn't go too far. / You shouldn't be mean to people.
- On t'aime mémère. > We love you, grandma.
- Tu ne viens pas t'asseoir avec ta mémère ? > Won't you sit a while with your granny?
- Au pire des cas, toi, mémère et Pierre pouvez venir rester avec nous. > If worst comes to worst, you, grandma and Pierre can come stay with us.
- L'autre jour, j'ai vu Anne avec des boucles d'oreilles de mémère. > The other day, I saw Anne wearing grandma's earrings.
- (Pejorative) Viens, mémère ! > Come on, (old) lady!
- (Pejorative) Je suis en retard à cause que j'ai eu à suivre un vieux mémère sur l'autoroute ! > I'm late because I had to follow an old woman on the highway!
- (Pejorative) Cette mémère lui a tout raconté ! > This old lady told him everything!
- (Pejorative) Chaque jour, ces vielles dames vont au restaurant pour mémèrer. > Every day these old women go to the restaurant to gossip.