Words and Civilisation: A Smidgeon of Français

Say sidewalk, elevator or garbage, and the English will wince in disgust and mutter the almost unspeakable.  “That’s American,” they will remark before casting you out of Society for polluting the purity of Shakespeare’s tongue.  Using French, however, suggests to them a classy je ne sais quoi.


Still, here again, certain rules of etiquette apply.  The first thing to remember, when adding a dash of French to your English speech, is never, ever to pronounce it in a way so accurate, people could mistake you for an actual French person.  You need to coat the Gallic expressions with a slur à l’anglaise.  After all, a little knowledge is charming, but too much is viewed as rudely threatening (see George Mikes, How to Be an Alien).


In my student days, there was a coffee shop on the Green just by Durham Castle.  They served a summer drink which consisted of freshly squeezed lemon juice at the bottom of a tall glass, you then diluted to taste with iced water.  It was listed on the menu as citron pressé.  With a brand-new French degree in my pocket, I went there with my friends, and ordered the beverage in my best French accent, pursing my lips for a sexy “o”, and making my “r” so guttural, it vibrated.  I took care to stress the last vowel of both words.  The waitress looked apologetic, and said they did not have that on the menu.  My friends rolled their eyes and sent signals of disapproval in my direction.  I repeated my order, this time shifting the stress to the first syllables (“CItron PRESSé”), and only alluded to the “r”.  My drink was promptly served.


The second thing to bear in mind, is that it is generally not considered chic to use French in the way the French intended.  Thus, a double entendre does not actually exist in France.  What they have, is a discourse à double entente.  Also, across the Channel, une crèche is a Nativity.  So, unless you are planning on dressing up your toddlers as Mary, a shepherd or an ass, you had better, perhaps, drop them off at a nursery, and take your chances with the likelihood of your offspring sprouting branches.  Moreover, the anaemic stodge our  Soho cafés call baguette, brioche or croissant, bears little resemblance to the light, airy, fragrant creations you savour in Montmartre.


On the subject of food, those of us with Continental pretentions will wish our fellow-diners “Bon appétit!”  There is no English equivalent.  Partly because traditional English food is more sustenance than pleasure, and partly because our traditional English austerity considers the enjoyment of food a bit frivolous – but saying it in French somehow makes it acceptable.  Giving a dish a Gallic name raises its status.  Thus, cold leek and potato soup becomes more distinguished as a Vichyssoise, pancakes are more sophisticated as crêpes  and anything in batter tastes better en croûte.


For dinner, tonight, I plan to have potatoes en veston, baked en manteau d’argent*.


* Jacket potatoes baked in foil.


© Scribe Doll

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3 Responses to Words and Civilisation: A Smidgeon of Français

  1. simon roberts says:

    I’m rather fond of haricot beans in a tomato jus on crostini. That’s beans on toast to you.

  2. Robin White says:

    I totally agree with you about the extraordinary reactions of the British (especially the English) to correctly pronounced French words. Your comments about food are also, sadly, very true. Those are two reasons why I do not associate in any way with the English in the Dordogne, where I spend spring and summer – the other strong reason being that most of them speak Estuary English which hurts my ears and causes me to reject their company.

    In French the most usual meaning of ‘crèche’ is ‘day nursery’, but it also means ‘crib’, which is the English word often used to mean not only the cradle or manger, but the whole ‘Nativity Scene’. The word ‘Nativity’ should not be used alone to describe the scene.

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