In Anybody’s Language

by David Sugarman

The French for “to call a spade a spade” is “appeler un chat un chat”, or “to call a cat a cat”. I was going to add “bizarrely” but it’s no more bizarre than the English version. Actually, in good French writing you might indeed refer to it as a cat at the first time of asking, but you would be advised to have a stock of synonyms at your disposal should it wander back into your text, so you can then call it “the animal”, “the pet”, “the creature”, “the quadruped”, “the beast”, and so on.

The French, you see, are very fond of avoiding repetition, and they go to considerable lengths to get out of repeating themselves, as if they were playing Just A Minute. At first, it seems as if they are highly erudite and are showing off their knowledge, but after a while you realise that the expressions they use are as lazy and clichéd as having a beret and a string of onions denote a Frenchman.

The problem may have started with Molière. The great French playwright and actor got a butchering by a contemporary critic named Boileau when he staged a farce, Les Fourberies de Scapin. Citing a piece of broad comic business involving hiding in a sack, Boileau snootily scoffed that he could no longer recognise “the author of Le Misanthrope,” referencing the satirical comedy of manners written and performed by Molière five years previously. Fair do’s: Boileau’s making his point clearly enough, pinpointing and implicitly praising one of Molière’s finest “serious” plays to highlight his distaste for the laugh-a-minute crowd-pleaser. For the critic, contrast a scene worthy of a bad sitcom with a work deserving a place in the theatrical pantheon and it’s job done.

These days, you regularly come across the expression “l’auteur du Misanthrope”. But it is not used in a pointed way. You don’t ever read “the author of Le Misanthrope was, indeed, a dreadful misogynist,” or, with a hint of irony, “in real life, the author of Le Misanthrope was actually the life and soul of the party.” No: it has become just a lazy way of saying “Molière” without repeating yourself. So you might write something as meaningless as “The author of Le Misanthrope was born in 1622.” It adds nothing, it’s just showing-off, and I find it annoying as hell!

The phenomenon is used by journalists without batting an eye. Two quite frequent examples come to mind. Just to avoid repetition, French Prime Ministers are often known as “le locataire de Matignon” (“the tenant of Matignon”), after the Prime Minister’s official residence. And whenever one of the Prime Ministerial incumbents doubles as a mayor (in France, politicians can and often do hold more than one office), another solution presents itself: the current Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, often makes his second or third appearance in newspaper articles in the guise of “the mayor of Nantes”. Even when the article has nothing to do with the city of Nantes or being a mayor. It’s not like referring to an individual as a “disgraced businessman,” a “former hostage,” or whatever, to give a new-readers-start-here gloss on the identity of the protagonist in a news story; it’s just a smart-alec lazy way of saying “the Prime Minster” without committing the cardinal sin of repeating yourself.

Other clichés abound. You can barely hear a news report of goings-on in Marseille (believe me, there are plenty) without it being called “la Cité phocéenne” (so named because it was a colony of the Greek city of Phocea around 2,600 years ago). And if I had a euro for every weather bulletin in which the highest temperature was forecast for “l’Île de Beauté” I’d be a jillionaire. Don’t look for it on the map: in English we say “Corsica”, and we don’t mind saying it as many times as necessary. But the French don’t want to repeat “Corse”. Of course not…

Although these two expressions are part of everyday French, they usually only occur once the term they are substituting for has been established. Not so, generally speaking, for the blackest of my bêtes noires, the utterly daft idea of calling English “la langue de Shakespeare” and French “la langue de Molière” (him again!). Now, this doesn’t allude to any particular characteristic of the language as used by Shakespeare or Molière (or, indeed, any of a good thirty-odd writers considered as being emblematic of their languages: German is “the language of Goethe”, Russian “the language of Pushkin”, and so on: there’s even a Wikipedia list). It’s just a lazy figure of speech intended to make the writer look clever. Fail! And in the country where the Académie Française effectively fossilised the French language round about the time of Molière, you try explaining to a Frenchman that English has moved on since Shakespeare’s time!


by David Sugarman

Each year, I’m as interested as any other language nerd to hear the list of new words incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary. How many would I use? How many have I never heard of? How many stem from technologies or cultural phenomena that are a no-go zone as far as I’m concerned?

Among this year’s crop, “selfie”, the word of the year, is part of my vocabulary although not my habits; my own TV-watching stops just short of the “binge-watch”; and as for my relationship with “twerking”, dear reader, you will have to use your imagination…

English is a highly fluid and adaptable language. Neologisms come easily; for a long list of reasons, it is the international language in which technological breakthroughs and new fashions and trends are generally first described. Just a little stretching and twisting of linguistic materials, and a term is coined.

Spare a thought, though, for the French. When expanding their vocabulary is concerned, much of the time they have to play catch-up. Naturally enough, France’s young people are constantly creating their own impenetrable argot, as do young people speaking practically every language known to man. But other portions of the population have a harder time pushing their language forward. Defenders of the French language battle valiantly against the rising tide of Anglicisms and have scored a few notable victories over the years (such as in the early 1970s, when “logiciel” was coined as a translation of “software”).

There is a relatively little-known annual event held in Le Havre called Le Festival du Nouveau Mot (scheduled, apparently, to coincide with the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau). Since 2002, the Festival has elected its “word of the year”. The list of past winners is not particularly inspiring: the best of a poor bunch in my opinion are “ordinosaure” (a prehistoric computer) and “attachiant” (describing a very annoying person you can’t get rid of). Both terms are portmanteau words (ordinateur + dinosaure and attachant + chiant). Frankly, once you’ve got beyond a smile of recognition, you can hardly say that either of them will change your life.

This year’s “word of the year”, I can breathlessly report, is “plénior”. It’s a combination, it seems, of plénitude, meaning “richness”, with an echo of plaisir, or pleasure, and senior… that good old English adjective that the French misuse as a noun to refer to older people, probably originally a contraction of “senior citizen”. So a “plénior” is someone getting on a bit who lives life to the full. Rather underwhelming as neologisms go. I wonder what the runner-up was…

Meanwhile, as I only live 45 minutes from Le Havre, I will make a point of attending next year’s festival, where I intend to campaign for a word I have just invented, which you will find (subtly translated) as the title of this article: Nouvocabulaire. I am toying with spelling it Nouveaucabulaire: a subliminal nod to the Beaujolais Nouveau on offer can’t do its chances of winning the vote any harm!

Mere Formalities

by David Sugarman

If someone French asks you to send something “par mail” don’t hunt around for a postage stamp. Sending something by snail-mail is known as “par courrier” (just to heighten the potential for confusion, this has nothing to do with using a courier on a motorbike: that would be “par coursier”… but I digress). “Par mail” is actually French for “by e-mail.” When e-mailing first got off the ground in the 90s, the term “e-mail” was used in French. But when the hyphen started getting dropped, it looked too much like “émail”, which is French for “enamel”. (I hope you’re following at the back.)

It was time for the muscular intervention of France’s linguistic guardians, the Académie Française (est. 1635). Just the people for the job. First of all, they had to Frenchify the spelling. Thus was born the word “mél”. In the circles in which I move, the birth of this barbarism passed largely unnoticed. It may have evoked too many bad memories of the Spice Girls. So the “immortals” (as the French call their Académiciens) had another think, and came up with “courriel” (i.e. “courrier électronique”… e-mail… geddit?). This has found official acceptance, and is seen on forms and documents, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it. No, it’s “Envoyez-le-moi par mail.”

So how about the actual content of the e-mail? Well, it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows much about the country where “Yours sincerely” becomes a subtle variation on the theme of “Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués” that things are not simple.

First things first. Starting. My professional e-mails in English generally begin “Hi David”. But that wouldn’t do for the French. Sometimes it’s “Cher Monsieur”, as in a traditional letter; sometimes just a more starchy “Monsieur”; if generated by a computer “Cher David Sugarman” (probably telling me I’ve won €1,000,000). The English “Hi” can become “Salut, David”, but I come across it less often than the English equivalent. Mostly, it’s “Bonjour, David”. What’s wrong with that? Well, I think it’s impersonal. “Bonjour” is what you say when you walk into a crowded bank or baker’s shop.

The next problem is that you have to keep up a brisk and familiar style. French is not good at that. Any language that encourages formal expressions like “J’ai l’honneur de…”, “Je me permets de…” and “Je vous serais reconnaissant de bien vouloir…” has little room for the direct language that is part and parcel of e-mailing in English. For me, the e-mails I receive in French seem too florid: for my correspondents, those I write are probably too abrupt.

As for the issue of whether to use “tu” or “vous”, it seems a lot less clear-cut in the e-mail environment than in the real world. Here, at least, the French seem to be willing to compromise on the stilted formality that comes with a two-tier form of address. Quite often, people with whom I have a “vouvoiement” relationship use the “tu”-form in an e-mail. Naïvely imagining they must be signaling a desire for a closer, warmer relationship with me, I duly switch to “tu” the next time I speak on the phone to them… only to hear that they immediately use “vous” back to me.

The sign-off, fortunately, is never “Veuillez agréer” etc. At one time, “Sincères salutations” was quite widely used, but business and professional e-mails mostly end with “Cordialement” or “Bien cordialement”, which has pretty much the same weight as the now ubiquitous “Best regards” in English. Some of my correspondents include it in their e-mail signatures. Personally, though, I’m not too impressed when it appears as “Cdt” or “Bien cdt”. I know I was saying that French in courriels should be briefer, but that’s going too far.


by David Sugarman

Quite early in the foreign language-learning process, we discover that dogs and cats, cows and sheep, ducks and pigs and the vast majority of Noah’s Ark “speak” differently from one language to another. There’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to the subject of cross-linguistic onomatopoeia, from bees to snakes. Thoroughly recommended as a way of idling away the odd five minutes, especially as alongside the animal sounds there are also human noises including burping, eating and farting in dozens of languages!

This post is not going to list the most bizarre of the animal sounds, despite the inherent entertainment value that this offers, but focus on a linguistic, social and cultural conundrum posed by just one of these animal translations, and a well-known one at that. As you probably know, the English cock’s crowing of “cock-a-doodle-do” is rendered as “cocorico” in French. If anyone is coming across this information for the first time, let me say that it’s the way you say it. If declaimed with sufficient gusto, both of these apparently different calls just about pass muster. I have no confirmation of this from a reliable avian source, mind you.

In Roman times, it was pointed out by Suetonius that the name for Gaul, “Gallus”, is a homonym of “gallus”, the Latin word for a cock. I hasten to add that this is not a scene from The Life of Brian. Perhaps I should have said “rooster”. Let’s stick with that. Anyway, it’s perhaps apocryphal that this is the origin of the French nation’s identification with the rooster as a symbol of its sporting prowess, but there’s no doubting the potency of the symbol for the French. You only have to see how many live roosters French rugby fans smuggle into stadiums for international matches to realise.

Every French sporting win is celebrated with rousing cries of “Cocorico!” As such, the word has entered slightly more widespread use, to signal any victorious performance by French nationals. It may be a French company winning a major contract, a French-born Nobel Prize winner or a French film scooping the Oscars. It is used throughout the media, introducing an item on the evening news, for instance. So how would you translate it into English? It connotes a high degree of patriotic fervour, not to say chauvinism, but I’m hard pushed to do better than, “Yet another victory for France!”

Also in a sporting context, the French call just about every national team “Les Bleus”, a reference to their blue strips, and the cry of “Allez les Bleus !” is ubiquitous in sports arenas, whenever – and at whatever – France is playing. The translator can be very literal, and opt for “Come on, the Blues!” or some such, but it’s not very inspiring. Perhaps one could take inspiration from the utterly mindless football chant, the imaginative and understated words of which are “Eng-ger-land, Eng-ger-land, Eng-ger-land,” and try “F-ran-ce, F-ran-ce, F-ran-ce.”

Talking of the mindless chants used by sports crowds, there’s one that is so popular with the French that it also breaks out on every election night. Before the results are announced, supporters from every party – the good, the bad and the electorally downright ugly – gather in front of their party’s headquarters and chorus “On va gagner !” (“We’re going to win!”). As soon as the results forecast is announced, supporters of the losing parties start crying and vanish into the night, while the winners make a slick change to the words of their chant, “On va gagner !” morphing seamlessly into “On a gagné !” (“We’ve won!”). Thus far, I have not been required to render either of these in convincing English.