Is it odd to have favourite words? Hopefully not too strange among language-learners, as it’s always been the case with me. How do we ever manage in English without the French si, the special version of ‘yes’ for exclusive use when contradicting the person you’re talking to? It’s very handy in conversation, and much more elegant than the English ‘oh yes it is’ (‘oh yes I did/she has/etc.), which is its most precise translation, and only suitable for pantomime usage. And how nice to discover that the French bélier, ‘ram’, not only means the male sheep but also the big wooden thing for battering down castle gates. So here, in an occasional series, are some French words that tickled my fancy as a linguist.
Firstly, le créneau (‘les créneaux’ in the plural). It means ‘battlement’, the up-and-down bit on top of a castle wall, and is related to the English word ‘crenellation’. You can use it literally: the poet Verlaine has a line about
‘L’archer qui veille au créneau de la tour’ (‘The archer standing watch on the battlements of the tower’).
And you can also use it metaphorically:
‘monter au créneau’ (‘go up to the battlements’)
means to wade into a discussion or controversy, particularly one where there’s attacking and defending to be done. That’s already more than we do in English with our own word, but the nice thing about the French créneau as opposed to the English battlement is how much further they take the idea of its up-down-up shape. Un créneau in French is not just a literal slot in the stone parapet at the top of a castle wall, but almost anything else that resembles that shape or reminds you of it in some way. It can be a crenellation-shaped design or pattern, square notches or teeth on a mechanical device, or the shape of a city skyline. More than that, it can be a figurative ‘slot’ between two blocks for something to fit into. You can have a
in your timetable available for a meeting. ‘Quels sont vos créneaux d’ici à vendredi ?’ (‘What times do you have available between now and Friday ?’) offers the online dictionary, Trésor de la Langue Française as its example. (I’m scheduling classes and tutorials at the moment myself, which is probably why the word springs to mind.)
‘trouver un bon créneau’
in the market (‘find a good opening’) for your product. ‘Une petite société, à condition de bien choisir ses créneaux, peut rivaliser avec les géants mondiaux’ (‘A small company can rival the giant multinationals, as long as it chooses its market openings carefully.’) says the TLF.
My favourite usage, though, is the more concrete idiom
‘faire un créneau’
literally, to ‘do a battlement’.
Rather beautifully, it’s the normal French expression meaning to slot your car into the gap between two other cars, i.e. to parallel park. The TLF illustrates the concept with the handy phrase, ‘Je rate toujours mes créneaux’ (‘I always mess up my parallel parking’), which you may wish to memorize in case it comes in useful in the future.
posted by Simon Kemp