Showing posts with label French language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French language. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My tastes in French words

Certain words and expressions in the glorious French language correspond, in my mind, to opposite extremes on the scale of beauty and ugliness. Let me start with the latter.

• I'm annoyed by the French adjective moelleux, which might be translated as "mushy". It's a texture reference to the slushy matter inside our spinal cord. This adjective, in French, is a favorite of distributors of foodstuffs such as yoghurt, cheese, etc.

• I detest the French expression baume au cœur. Theoretically, this means "heart ointment". Metaphorically, it designates soothing effects of all kinds. Each time I hear this expression, my auditive system records the nonsense expression beau moqueur ("handsome mocker").

• I react unfavorably every time I hear of an alleged ville d'étape. This means a town for an overnight stop. But what makes one town more favorable than another to be stopped in for an evening and night?

• An old-fashioned word I adore in French is sapience, which exists also in English. It means wisdom, like Sophia: the name of my deceased dog.


Once upon a time, there was a weird German medieval mystic named Heinrich Seuse (in English: Henry Suso).


He was an adept of practices known as mortification, designed to promote personal pain conducive to an assimilation with the sufferings of the Lord. He wore underclothes studded with nails. Like a Hindu fakir, he slept on a bed of nails, even at the height of winter. And it is said that he never washed himself for a quarter of a century. Still, he succeeded in producing a fabulous illustrated masterpiece, Horologium Sapientiae (Clock of Sapience).


Its general theme, in a nutshell, was that the acquisition of philosophical wisdom is rhythmed by the metronomic ticks of a clock, which remind us constantly of our imminent encounter with death.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Demoiselle or dame, that is the question

The great Jacques Brel (in my humble opinion, one of the most amazing French-language artists of all time) once created a song that was based solely upon the Latin declension of the word for rose, rosa.



When I started to learn Latin, I was an 11-year-old kid at Grafton High School. Funnily, I've never forgotten my first lesson. Our teacher, Robert Sinclair (whom I met for the last time when I was out in Sydney in 2006, not long before his death), taught us the declension of the noun dominus, meaning master.

Now, if I had been brought up in the Roman Catholic church, I might have encountered the term dominus as a familiar reference to the Lord Jesus. As it was, I learned that a dominus (master), in the Roman context, was a man in charge of a domus (household). In modern English, we have everyday words from these two origins: the adjective "dominant" is derived from dominus, whereas "domestic" comes from domus. On the surface, it looks a bit like a chicken and egg situation. Which came first, the dominus or the domus? A master only comes into existence when there is a household over which he rules. But a household only exists as such when it has been created by the presence of a master. The Roman statesman and orator Cicero evoked the relationship between these two concepts: nec domo dominus, sed domino domus honestanda est (It is not the house that must honor the master, but the master who must honor the house).

Ever since I've been living in France, I've admired a basic feature of French language usage: the existence of convenient words that normally enable anyone to speak directly and politely to any other person. If the latter person is an adult male, you address him as "monsieur"; if an adult female, you address her as "madame". If you wish to speak to an officer with captaincy rank, say, you address him as "mon capitaine". Back in the days when religion was an omnipresent phenomenon in France, you addressed a priest as "mon père", and a nun as "ma sœur". In all these terms and expressions, the "mon" and "ma" prefixes mean "my", but this use of a possessive adjective is a mere sign of politeness, as in the old-fashioned English terms milord and milady. In a French context, when a citizen addresses a high-ranking military man as "mon général", that usage does not imply that the citizen is truly under the orders of the general. In the same way, an atheist such as myself sees no conflict in addressing a priest as "mon père". He's certainly not my personal reverend father (as if I were a member of his congregation), but rather a professional churchman, often of a friendly disposition, with whom I sympathize to the extent of recognizing, at least, his social status as a priest.

Unfortunately, in certain administrative sectors of French society, there's a nasty habit of retaining the term "mademoiselle" for female adults who don't happen to be officially married. This situation is blatantly wrong, since the marital status of a woman or a man should not impinge upon their social identity. So, I agree with French feminists that there are solid grounds for eradicating, in a draconian manner, the term "mademoiselle". But it would be a great pity to throw out the baby with the bath water. What I'm trying to say is that terms of address such as "monsieur", "madame" and "mademoiselle" have an etymology that deserves respect, since they are mirrors of a certain history of France.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Successful French imperative

In a world dominated by English, it's rare for a French word to achieve stardom. Funnily enough, it's not even a striking word, merely the 2nd-person imperative of the quite ordinary verb dégager meaning literally "to disengage".

In the above context, placarded in the midst of an anti-Mubarak rally a few weeks ago, this imperative might have been translated into English as Leave! More emphatically, in less-diplomatic language: Fuck off! Personally, I would be incapable of explaining why this particular French word has raised its head and become popular in the context of the on-going Mediterranean upheavals. But local French-speaking folk would surely be able to explain this happening. In any case, maybe, when they've finished exploiting this successful verb in lands such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, we might be allowed to draw it back into its original French context. One never knows. One of these days, it might just be useful.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

French swearing update

Readers wishing to brush up on their knowledge of crude French language can take advantage of front-page stories that have been appearing over the last few days in the prestigious and diplomatic sporting daily L'Equipe, which rarely resorts to sensationalism or even raises its voice.

If I maybe permitted to translate those two lines, I would settle for something along the following lines: "Go and get sodomized, you dirty offspring of a whore!" Nicolas Anelka, born near Versailles 31 years ago, certainly uses a colorful style of French. As far as I know, though, he has never studied literature in a French university.

Ever since I first set foot in France, at a time when I knew just enough poor French to book into a cheap Latin Quarter hotel, I've been amused by the way in which many English-speaking foreigners imagine that the French swear.

It's most unlikely that a gendarme, shit upon by a bird, would cry out the two words "sacré bleu" and reach for his pistol. The archaic interjection is a single term, "sacrebleu", and there's no accent on the final letter of "sacre". So, the three syllables are pronounced sah-creuh-bleuh, not sack-cray-blue. It's not the adjective "sacré" meaning "sacred", but rather the associated noun "sacre" meaning "consecration", akin to "coronation", as in the expression "consecration of a bishop". The original etymology of "sacrebleu" is "consecrated by God", and the term "Dieu" (God) was modified, no doubt intentionally, to the adjective for the color blue… in much the same way that "by our Lady" evolved into "bloody". But I insist upon the fact that no self-respecting French swearer, today, not even a gendarme or a soccer player, would use this old-fashioned interjection.

The equally archaic "sapristi" can only be found today in Tintin comics. It's a corruption of the term "sacristie" (sacristy or church vestry), which designates the room where priests and choir boys hang out together, before and after the mass.

My aged neighbor Madeleine assures me that she has never heard the terms "sacrebleu" and "sapristi"… but she may well be simply unwilling to acknowledge that she recognizes such blasphemous words. She told me that the only vulgar interjections she uses are "zut" (rhymes with the English word "boot") and "pétard" (firecracker), which are particularly mild ways of exclaiming "shit".

Getting back to the language employed in a soccer context, I must mention briefly a French attitude that has always intrigued me. People proclaim that top-level soccer players should be careful about what they do and say, because they've become role models for countless French boys. Now, if this were indeed true (which it probably isn't), then the educational authorities should step in with a view to eradicating any such unhealthy situation. The last thing in the world that wise and conscientious French parents would wish for is to see their sons acquiring moral principles, good manners and fine language from uncouth and uneducated fucking soccer players!

PRECISION: I've noticed that the French TV channel M6 has revealed that Anelka's words to Domenech might not in fact be those that appeared on the front page of L'Equipe.

Here's my translation of the revised version: "Go and get sodomized. You can do what you like with your shitty system." That's nicer than the first version, isn't it.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Much of a muchness

When I first heard this silly riddle, long ago, I thought it was funny in a subtle way:

QUESTION: What's the difference between a canary?

Listeners will ask, of course: Between a canary and what? But the question must remain exactly as is: What's the difference between a canary?

ANSWER: There's no difference whatsoever between a canary, because it has two legs of exactly the same length, the right one a little bit more than the left.

In the political domain, when two individuals seem to be advocating identical strategies, observers often say: bonnet blanc, blanc bonnet, which might be translated as "the bonnet is white, it's a white bonnet". In everyday English: "six of one and half a dozen of the other".

In colloquial French, there's a neat way of saying that two things are the same: C'est kif-kif. Apparently, kif is a Maghrib term meaning "the same", and French people have doubled the syllable in the belief that kif-kif sounds more Arabic.

Now, if you want to be long-winded about saying that two things are the same, you can add on a popular term for "donkey": C'est kif-kif bourricot. And what's the role of the donkey in this verbal construction? Well, it would appear that, in North Africa, to indicate that two things are the same, people often say that they're kif-kif... like a donkey. Like a canary, for that matter.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Wild rabbits and environmental issues

Often, I like to see how new words have come into existence. And sometimes, to understand a new word that appears to be modern— a neologism, as they are called—you have to start a long way back in time. Let me tell you how a curious new word has appeared in French.

It's a roundabout story, which starts with rabbits. As an Australian brought up in a country town, I've always thought I knew a little bit about these animals. On countless occasions, out in the bush, I saw my father take his rifle from the back of the Jeep to shoot rabbits. They were Dad's number-one enemy, because they consumed the precious grass intended for his beef cattle. In France, I discovered that the word lapin designates the huge backyard rabbit reared in cages for meat. To talk about small wild rabbits running around in the fields and forests, as in Australia, the French use the expression lapin de garenne.

Most French people, asked to define a garenne, would probably reply that this word designates patches of uncultivated land in the country where you're likely to find wild rabbits. In the Middle Ages, a garenne was a hunting reserve. At that time, in Paris, much of the land to the south of the place where the Eiffel Tower now stands was a swampy garenne. Finally, it was cleaned up and cultivated by the monks of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, who grew vegetables there. The track leading down to the former garenne came to be called the rue Garanelle, and this was later changed to rue de Grenelle. From the start of the 18th century, numerous aristocratic mansions—called hôtels in French—were erected in this fashionable street.

One of these splendid dwellings was the home of the Duke of Châtelet [nothing to do with the famous square of that name in the center of the city]. When this gentleman was guillotined in 1777, the Hôtel du Châtelet became state property. For many years, it was the palace of the archbishop of Paris. After the separation between the State and the Church became law, in 1905, the Republic asked the archbishop to pack his bags, and the noble mansion was henceforth occupied by the ministry of Employment.

In this building, on 25/26 May 1968, at the height of the social turmoil in France [referred to, since then, as mai 68], representatives of the government of Georges Pompidou [including a certain young secretary of state named Jacques Chirac] negotiated with trade unions and management organizations, resulting in a 25% increase in the basic wage, an average 10% increase in effective salaries, and the adoption of the 40-hour working week. Since then, the historic outcome of this meeting has been referred to as the accords de Grenelle [Grenelle agreement].

Today, the name of the street where this agreement was signed has become a common noun in everyday French: grenelle [still spelled incorrectly, most often, with an uppercase G]. The new word is used to designate a major national get-together involving participants, often with widely differing viewpoints, who are intent upon achieving a consensus. At the present moment, for example, a vast process of debate and study aimed at finding solutions to environmental problems is designated by this neologism: the grenelle of the environment. For wild rabbits, that's a big hop.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

High-technic's sign

In the category of pseudo-English words and punctuation used in France, this is one of my favorites. It's a sign for an industrial cleaning firm in the nearby village of St-Jean-en-Royans. The French word propreté means "cleanliness". I know nothing about the firm, but I would guess that the owner has purchased one of those huge cube-shaped floor-scrubbing machines on wheels, with revolving brushes, that you often see in supermarkets. This top-notch cleaning equipment was probably made in the USA (because I'm not familiar with any French manufacturers in this field), and the fellow surely paid a lot of money for it. So, he wanted to find a name for his firm that evokes the idea of high-tech cleaning. Knowing that a French word such as clinique becomes "clinic" in English, he imagined that technique becomes "technic". And, in case any ignorant French customers didn't know that "technic" is supposed to be English, the owner has thrown in a meaningless apostrophe-s for good measure.

To complicate matters, it's a fact that, if the owner of the French firm consulted an American dictionary (as he surely did), he would indeed find the nouns "technic" and "technics". But writers of good English would not normally apply these highbrow terms to the field of scrubbing floors in offices and factories.

Incidentally, there's an error in the French. Can you find it?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

English traps

Commercial people in France are constantly using English words and expressions to identify their products, because they think it looks smart, but they often get things screwed up. They love to use words that end in an apostrophe-s, as this looks very English, but few French people seem to understand this construction (which is not necessarily straightforward for people whose native tongue is English). For example, there's a small Red Indian theme park not far away from here. The proprietor has named it Indian's Valley, imagining no doubt that this designates a valley with a certain number of make-believe French-speaking Red Indians who dwell in teepees and ride horses. It would be impossible to explain to him that the name suggests in fact a valley inhabited by a solitary Indian.

The following brand-name patch appears on the back of trousers I bought recently:

First, I'm intrigued by the term Chino. It doesn't seem to mean anything in French but, just as Dick is an abbreviation in English for Richard, Chino happens to be the traditional abbreviation for my son's first-name, François. Don't ask me why. The patch contains another funny word: pant. Obviously, the French manufacturer has heard of pants, he's learned that it's a plural word, and so he has invented a singular version. A pair of pants, so one pant. After all, in French, the word for pants is singular: un pantalon.

An English word that stuns French people is toothbrush. Is it a fact, they ask, that Anglo-Saxons [that's the generic term used to designate people whose native tongue is English] brush their teeth one at a time?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Missing word

There's an ordinary French word that nobody, apparently, has ever bothered to translate into English: francophonie, meaning the existence of French, in many societies throughout the world, as an everyday operational language. Let me fill in this gap. Since the use of telephones is referred to, in English, as telephony, there's no reason why the use of French should not be called Francophony. Yesterday, March 20, was Francophony Day for 200 million French-speaking people throughout the world: a celebration organized by OIF [Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie]. Among other things, Francophony Day reminds us that the next Tour de France and Bastille Day are less than four months away.