Fractured French

There is a distinct love-hate relationship between the English and French languages. We’ve borrowed a lot from the French over the years, with mixed results.

All of this goes back a long way (1066, and all that), but shows no sign of abating.

French words we’ve more or less naturalised

There are some borrowings from French that we don’t even think about, because they’ve become fully anglicised, sometimes with changes in spelling: apartment, baton, hotel, parliament.

Sometimes we try to make anglicised French words more French again, for example when we pronounce niche like NEESH, instead of the acclimatised (and perfectly correct) pronunciation NITCH.

Other French words are still in transition, although it appears to be a losing battle to keep the final French –me in program(me). There may be hope yet for manoeuvre against the tide of maneuver.

Accents disappear readily, but not always. A good example is the French-derived word for CV: is it résumé (which would be the correct spelling in French) or resumé (which is common in English)? The pedant in me prefers the former, even though that runs the risk of looking … well … pedantic. So I avoid the issue and just say CV.

Debris is also neither fully English nor French: the E has generally lost its accent, but (as in French) we don’t pronounce the final S.

French expressions which don’t really have an exact English equivalent

Can you come up with pithy English equivalents for je ne sais quoi, joie de vivre, sang-froid, savoir-faire and après-ski?

Keeping one’s cool, perhaps; but know-how isn’t quite the same as savoir-faire – it lacks that certain something?

French expressions which will make you sound pretentious

Basically anything that already has a serviceable and well-established English equivalent.

French expressions which the French don’t really use

And then there is that category of words and phrases used in English and derived from French, but which the French don’t really, actually use. At all. Ever. Some examples follow.

Au jus: Your humble scribe has yet to see this on a menu in France. (And please, don’t say with au jus; au means ‘with’.)

Au naturel: This just means ‘plain, unadorned’ to the French. They say nu (‘naked’) when they mean ‘naked’.

 Brunette: A woman with brown hair is brune or une brune.

Décolletage: One would talk about a woman’s décolleté in French (if one mentioned it at all).

Double entendre: A French person would say double entente or sous-entendu.

Duvet: To a French speaker, this is just the down that fills the quilt, not the quilt itself – which is a couette.

Encore: The French don’t shout this after particularly good performances: they call out bis! (‘repeat’).

Ensuite: This doesn’t mean an adjoining bathroom to a French person; it just mean ‘then’. For the room, say something like salle de bain attenante.

Rapport: In French, ‘a connection’ with someone, whether good or bad; to convey the positive sense this word has in English it would be necessary to say un bon rapport.

Résumé: The French use this, but only to mean ‘summary’; the biographical document is a curriculum vitae.

Risqué: Merely ‘risky’ to the French. For ‘slightly daring or scandalous’, you’d want to say osé.

Not suggesting you use the genuinely French versions of these now-English expressions, however, because the versions we use are so entrenched in English that you’d attract funny looks for trying to be more authentically Gallic.

If it’s any consolation, the French use ‘English’ words that look nothing short of outlandish to us, like le people (celebrities, the beau monde) or even un people (a celebrity); un brushing (blow-dry); un pressing (dry-cleaning); un relooking (make-over) and se faire relooker (to get a make-over); un basket (sports shoe); talkie-walkie (walkie-talkie) – amongst many others. For further reference, see C. Furiassi & H. Gottlieb, Pseudo-English: Studies in False Anglicisms in Europe (2015).

Next time: CAPS

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

Start the discussion!

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)