This was once a word of the future, the bright, clear, future, full of shine, as emblematic for many years as its near-doppelganger cell phone was more recently. It names a smooth, glassy, pliable, diaphanous film made from the same general sort of thing as paper is: cellulose. It’s a smooth, slippery word, not a stop in it, just the /s/ and /f/ voiceless fricatives, the /l/ liquid and /n/ nasal, and three vowels, one or two of which are diphthongs. It’s a word that can bespeak silly fun or a subtle, profane phallocentricity, depending on what – or whom – it’s wrapping.

For me, cellophane will always call forth Plastic. It will call forth lower-case plastic, of course, because we often call it plastic wrap, though there are many kinds of things we’ll call that and cellophane is only one (cling wrap is another – not the same thing). But it will call forth upper-case Plastic too: Plastic Bertrand, the ultimate invented plastic pop idol from Belgium, presented shrink-wrapped for public consumption, complete with his first smash hit, “Ça plane pour moi”:

Plastic Bertrand was an epiphany for me in junior high: pop punk in French. Does he seem plastic? Sure. Cellophane? Well, if you listen to the second verse of the song, you may hear the words poupée de cellophane, which mean ‘cellophane puppet’. The song is not written for coherence, I should say, and multiple interpretations are available. When I listened to it in my adolescence, I thought I heard couper la cellophane, ‘cut(ting) cellophane’. But I didn’t really understand a lot of the rest either. It turns out it’s not really understandable, but anyway I didn’t get the right incoherent words. It was anything but transparent.

Transparency is a hallmark characteristic of cellophane. In fact, it’s in the name: cello from cellulose – the plant product from which it is made – and phane, from the Greek ϕαν root meaning ‘come to light, show’, which we see in words such as diaphanous (the French inventor of cellophane had the French word diaphane ‘transparent’ in mind) and epiphany.

So cellophane, which seems so artificial, is nonetheless made from organic matter (so are oil and gas, mind you: organic matter decayed and changed over millions of years). And the word cellophane, which seemed so modern even in the 1960s and ’70s, came into existence in 1912, with the product it names. Sometimes plastic things seem realer than real. And sometimes something is so transparent you don’t even notice it.

Plastic Bertrand has mounted a bit of a comeback recently. Here’s a video of him singing his top hit a few years ago:

Does he sound like the same guy as in the first recording? I mean, he’s older and all that, of course. But still. Now listen to this 2010 version by a different guy, Lou Deprijck.

Doesn’t that sound a bit more like the original?

Go find every TV performance by the young Plastic Bertrand and you’ll realize quickly they’re all lip-syncs to the studio version. If you happen to have a copy of Plastic Bertrand’s greatest hits album, as my brother did (I was listening to his copy), you may think at some point how it’s odd that his voice in the songs recorded at live concerts is a bit different. Or you may think nothing of it because you know studios do things with voices.

Such as use one person’s voice and another person’s face.

When Plastic Bertrand – real name Roger Allen François Jouret – was hired by a producer to be a start and sing songs the producer had written, the song “Ça plane pour moi” had already been recorded – with the producer and songwriter, one Lou Deprijck, on vocals. In fact, all four of Plastic’s first albums were with Deprijck’s voice. Plastic was a great face and a lively performer. But Deprijck didn’t even want him singing on the albums. He was a cellophane puppet.

This fact came to light quite recently. In fact, Jouret only admitted the truth of it in 2010.

And I read it and I said, “Huh.” And then I said, “Of course.”

Is nothing sacred? Well, maybe not nothing. But sometimes things aren’t just profane. They’re cellophane.

And that’s a wrap.

2 responses to “cellophane

  1. Thank you so much for introducing me to Plastic Bertrand. Now I can die contented.

    Cellophane is also one of the standard examples that lawyers trot out when they talk about genericide – the process whereby a brand name becomes the common name of the thing branded. Aspirin, escalator, heroin, all started life as brand names, before – genericide! The term (genericide, not cellophane) is almost always a bit of a misnomer because it seems to imply someone deliberately set out to kill the trademark by making it a generic term… whereas usually it’s a gradual and involuntary process: the consuming public comes to associate the brand name with the thing sold, not its purveyor, with the result that the trademark is a hapless victim of its own (and the product’s) success. (So perhaps a more accurate term would be negligent genericide.) In the case of cellophane, though, a U.S. court held that the name was generic because, among other things, the inventor himself had used his coined term to refer to the product he had invented… and so later attempts to use the name as a trademark were doomed, since a generic term cannot function as a trademark. The inventor, in short, had strangled the trademark in its cradle – a clear case of first-degree genericide.

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