Tag Archives: bons mots

Bons mots: savoir-faire

200_s  posted by Simon Kemp

We already know what ‘savoir-faire’ means, don’t we? After all, it’s part of the English language.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that it usually refers to…

the ability to speak or act appropriately in social situations.

They give a few examples of usage, including this one from 1924:
He had, it seems, spent previously some months at Deauville and Paris… and there acquired that polished French and developed that savoir-faire, both so typical of him.’
And this one, about the British Queen Mother in 2000:
‘Her savoir-faire was as much instinctive as learned.’

It’s about sophistication, elegance, good manners and suave self-assurance. It basically means this:

andrews-sophisticated-couple

Right?

Well, yes, that’s what it means in English, but would you be surprised to learn that that’s not what it means in French?

According to the Larousse dictionary, savoir-faire means:

compétence acquise par l’expérience dans les problèmes pratiques, dans l’exercice d’un métier.

… in other words, it’s know-how (a term that’s also used in French as a synonym for savoir-faire).

So not so much them…

andrews-sophisticated-couple

as him:

img-handyman-skills

It can mean being handy with putting up shelves, or good with IT, or having organizational skills. Savoir-faire in French is any kind of practical competence (especially job-related) that you’ve learned by experience.

 So, if savoir-faire in French means know-how, what’s the French for savoir-faire (in the English sense of the word)?

It’s savoir-vivre.

Savoir-vivre is defined in the French dictionary as:

Connaissance et pratique des règles de la politesse, des usages du monde.

…which is basically the same idea of social sophistication that we saw in the original English dictionary definition of savoir-faire.
Bizarrely, then, when you’re translating between the two languages:
if you see savoir-faire in an English text you should probably translate it as savoir-vivre in French
and if you see savoir-faire in a French text you should probably translate it as know-how in English.
How did this odd situation come about?
Well, it seems that when the term first came into English, it had the same meaning as in French. The Oxford Dictionary first records it being used in 1788 in the following line:

‘I have a very great opinion of your savoir faire, especially in the articles of sugar and rum; but for your savoir vivre—none.’

It’s pretty clear that both savoir-faire and savoir-vivre are being used here in their original French senses of know-how and sophistication respectively.

Over the course of the next century or so, savoir-faire in English gradually came to get its present overtones, either because English speakers associated the French with being sophisticated, or because being able to drop French words into your English conversation was itself seen as a sophisticated thing to do. Probably a little of both.

It’s actually quite a common phenomenon. A word that’s fairly ordinary and neutral in French, will come over all sleek, sexy and stylish once it’s borrowed by the English.

It happened with le savoir-faire.

It happened with un je-ne-sais-quoi, which means ‘a certain something I can’t quite put my finger on’ in French, and ‘a certain stylish and sophisticated something I can’t quite put my finger on’ in English.

It happened with un rendez-vous, which in French is the normal, and entirely neutral word for an appointment. If a French person has un rendez-vous with their dentist, it likely involves fluoride gel and oral hygiene tips; if an English speaker has a rendez-vous with a dentist, we expect roses, wine and sugar-free chocolates.

And it happened with la lingerie, which to French people means pants of both the lacy, exotic variety and the sensible, practical, keeping-everything-warm-through-the-winter kind. (It also refers to women’s nightwear of all sorts, and to places where underwear and nightwear are manufactured, sold or stored).

ruedelal

There are several other examples. Can you think of any?

If a language can have an inferiority complex, then it seems English might have got one. If it’s trying to express a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, a kind of effortless, stylish, savoir-faire, then  only French will do.

belle-epoque

Bons mots: la limousine et la baïonnette

The Limousin is a region of France to the south-west of Paris around the city of Limoges. Bayonne is a town on the Atlantic coast near the Spanish border, in the heart of the Basque country.

The Limousin is a mostly rural area, famed in France for its distinctive red-brown limousin beef cattle. It doesn’t have a lot of limousines, and yet the region is without doubt the origin of the word.

Similarly, the place-name of Bayonne is the origin of the word bayonet (la baïonnette in French).

So how did limousines and bayonets come to get their names?

The link between Bayonne and bayonets is the more straightforward one. Rural France in the seventeenth century was prone to sporadic conflicts between different groups. During one such, the peasants of Bayonne found themselves short of gunpowder and bullets. As an alternative, they lashed their hunting knives to the end of their muskets to make improvised spears, and the bayonet was born. (They may not actually have been the first people ever to do so, but the association with Bayonne has stuck.)

Limousin and the limo is a more mysterious connection. No one actually knows for sure how the region came to give its name to the stretched cars beloved of film stars and hen nights. The first vehicles to be known by the name were luxury cars in the 1900s which had an enclosed compartment for the passengers behind a driver’s seat with roof and windscreen, but otherwise open.

One suggestion is that shepherds of the limousin region wore a distinctive hooded cloak. Carriages with separate cover for driver and passengers became known as ‘limousin’ carriages by association, and when the similarly structured motor vehicle appeared, the name was carried across. Do make up your own etymology for the term, though, if you can think of something more plausible.

Other French words derived from place names include le corbillard (hearse), which originally referred to a water-bus shuttling between Paris and the suburb of Corbeil, and la dinde (turkey), which is a contraction of la poule des Indes (chicken from the West Indies), showing that the French had a better grasp of where turkeys come from than the English did.

Lastly, the flower meadow saffron is le colchique in French, which is derived from Colchis, the home of the tragic heroine Medea in Greek myth. Medea’s story involves multiple poisonings, and in French the poisonous flowers of the meadow saffron are associated with her crimes. Les colchiques, and their poison, feature in the most famous poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, which gives me all the reason I need to reprint it here by way of conclusion:

 

Les Colchiques

Le pré est vénéneux mais joli en automne
Les vaches y paissant
Lentement s’empoisonnent
Le colchique couleur de cerne et de lilas
Y fleurit tes yeux sont comme cette fleur-la
Violatres comme leur cerne et comme cet automne
Et ma vie pour tes yeux lentement s’empoisonne

Les enfants de l’école viennent avec fracas
Vêtus de hoquetons et jouant de l’harmonica
Ils cueillent les colchiques qui sont comme des mères
Filles de leurs filles et sont couleur de tes paupières
Qui battent comme les fleurs battent au vent dément

Le gardien du troupeau chante tout doucement
Tandis que lentes et meuglant les vaches abandonnent
Pour toujours ce grand pré mal fleuri par l’automne

Meadow Saffron

 The meadow is poisonous but pretty in the autumn / The cows that graze there / Are slowly poisoned / Meadow-saffron the colour of lilac and of dark shadows around the eyes / Grows there your eyes are like those flowers / Mauve as their shadows and mauve as this autumn / And for your eyes’ sake my life is slowly poisoned

 Children from school come with their commotion / Dressed in smocks and playing the mouth-organ / Picking autumn crocuses which are like their mothers / Daughters of their daughters and the colour of your eyelids / Which flutter like flowers in the mad breeze blown

 The cowherd sings softly to himself all alone / While slow moving lowing the cows leave behind them / Forever this great meadow ill flowered by autumn

Bons mots: la licorne et l’écrevisse

licodam

posted by Simon Kemp

Today, we have a short piece of bilingual theatre for you:

 

LA LICORNE ET L’ÉCREVISSE

AN ETYMOLOGICAL DRAMA IN THREE ACTS

ACT ONE

A long time ago, in a castle in England. GUINEVERE, a damsel, is embroidering a needlepoint picture of a horse with a horn sticking out of its forehead.

Enter BISCLAVRET, a French knight on holiday, and ISEUT, his lady-friend.

BISCLAVRET (to Guinevere, trying out his best English): Is very nice! What is called?

GUINEVERE (without looking up): ‘Unicorn’.

BISCLAVRET: Excusing me, once again, how you say name?

GUINEVERE (with limited patience): Unicorn.

ISEUT (to Bisclavret): Qu’est-ce qu’elle a dit, l’anglaise?

BISCLAVRET : Elle dit que c’est une icorne.

ISEUT : Ah, bon ?

 

ACT TWO

A château, somewhere in France. ISEUT is busy weaving a tapestry based on a new design she saw on a recent trip to England.

Enter BRENGAINE, her maid.

BRENGAINE: Que c’est beau, madame! En fait, c’est quoi le cheval avec la corne au front?

ISEUT : L’icorne.

BRENGAINE : Ah, ça s’appelle donc une licorne ! Je vais apprendre ce mot à tous mes amis !

 

OK, so it may not have happened precisely in that way. In fact, the route taken from the Latin unicornis to the French licorne more likely travels via the Italian alicorno. Either way, though, the evolution of the French word really does come through this kind of successive mishearings, adding and subtracting letters at the beginning of the word and then crystalizing  the mistake into the accepted form of the word.

Words invented by mistake like this are surprisingly common, especially when two languages are in contact and the speakers of one language are not always entirely clear what the speakers of the other one are on about. Famously, there are place names, such as Yucatán in Mexico, which were diligently recorded by European explorers as the local name for the area, but which apparently mean  ‘What?’ or ‘What are you saying?’ in the local language. With English and French, misunderstandings have happened in both directions between the two languages…

 

ACT THREE

GUINEVERE and her friend MORGAN LE FAY are visiting ISEUT in her château. The three chums are eating crisps* and paddling in the moat.

MORGAN LE FAY (suddenly): Ugh! There are horrible things scuttling about under the water! Ow! One of them has pinched my toe! Iseut, ma chérie, comment s’appelle cette bête?

ISEUT (indistinctly, through a mouthful of crisps): L’écrevisse.

MORGAN LE FAY: Elles s’appellent les créviches?

ISEUT (already bored and not really listening): Oui, c’est ça.

GUINEVERE: What did she say it was? A cray-fish?

MORGAN LE FAY: Yeah, something like that.

GUINEVERE: Funny, looks more like a lobster to me.

*In pre-Columbian Europe, crisps were made out of thinly sliced fried turnips.

 

Again, a certain amount of dramatic licence is involved in this reconstruction. Strictly speaking, both the modern French  écrevisse and the English crayfish are descended from the Old French word, crevice. But the fish of crayfish most definitely arises from a corruption of the sound of that last syllable,‘veece’ in the French word, which someone at some point misheard as ‘fish’. And that, dear reader, is how this little fellow…

 crayfish_1516006c

…who is clearly not a fish at all, came to be known in English as a crayfish.

Bons mots: from ‘trouvaille’ to ‘mise en abyme’

 

posted by Simon Kemp

We all know that the listicle is the lowest form of internet journalism, but I came across one the other day that I thought you might like to see. Slate.fr, the French sister-publication of the American online magazine links approvingly to a list in Business Insider, of all places, of ‘wonderful French expressions’ that have no simple translation into English. Here, for your edification, and so you can casually drop them into conversation and then declare vaguely that ‘non-French-speakers can’t really grasp the concept’, are the words and expressions in question, as compiled by Rob Wile:

 

Trouvaille

Something awesome that was discovered by chance or stumbled upon.

Laïcité

France’s aggressive form of separation between church and state. The country would never allow a voting booth to be placed in a church, for instance, even if it would be the most expedient means of holding an election in a small town.

Saloperie

The act of a jack-ass.

Décomplexé

Pure, sure of oneself, lacking neurotic hangups or socio-cultural pressures.

Droit a l’oubli

“Right to oblivion.” There are now guidelines, signed in 2010, applying to search engines that automatically cache pages on social media — basically, they’re not really allowed to. “We don’t hate what the Internet stands for — there’s a lot of material online that should be kept. But in certain cases, we’d prefer to have the ability to erase them,” Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who put together the guidelines (and who just lost the race for mayor in Paris), said upon signing the guidelines.

Diaboliser

To impugn with bad intentions — to suggest that someone or something is inherently bad. Often used in discussing politics.

Dépaysé

Feeling displaced from one’s native land or familiar routine.

Déontologie

An informal but widely set of rules for a profession. Also a philosophical concept denoting a set of actions taken out of duty, rather than consequence.

Mise en abyme

This is the word for when you’re standing between two mirrors and you see an infinite regression of yourself. It’s also commonly used to describe self-referential works in a novel or play.

Bons mots: chat tigré

posted by Simon Kemp

Given that the internet is made of cats, there’s no reason for this blog to be an exception, so here, accompanied by an image of my own overweight and slightly moth-eaten chat tigré, is a post on the subject. Tigré is another of my favourite words, not just because I own a chat tigré myself, but because it makes the cat sound very much cooler than in its English translation, tabby cat. My Larousse dictionary lists tigré as a simple adjective, which ‘se dit d’un pelage marquée de taches, de bandes plus foncées’ [‘refers to fur marked with darker patches or stripes’]. The online Trésor de la langue française goes one better, though, identifying it as the past participle of a rare verb, tigrer quelque chose, ‘to tiger-stripe something’. It even has a few literary examples of usage, including the following from Huysmans: ‘l’épiderme se tigre de taches jaunes’  [‘the epidermis is tiger-striped with yellow marks’]. It strikes me as an unfortunate lapse that English never thought to make tigering a verb, and it never occurred to us that our tabby cats might have been tigered.

Cats turn up in all kinds of idioms and proverbs in French. I think, although I’m not sure of this, rather more frequently than they do in English. Rarely the same ones though. You don’t set the cat among the pigeons in French, for instance, on jette un pavé dans la mare (‘throw a cobblestone into the pond’). You don’t let the cat out of the bag but vendre la mèche (literally, ‘sell the wick’, but in an archaic sense meaning, more or less, ‘reveal the fuse that leads to the hidden gunpowder’). And nor does it rain cats and dogs: in France, rather less surreally, il pleut des cordes (‘it rains ropes’). Weirdly, though, a French idiom will often map exactly onto its English equivalent in image and sense, except for the fact that the French have substituted a cat for various items used in the English expressions. French people do not have a frog in their throat, ils ont un chat dans la gorge; they do not call a spade a spade, ils appellent un chat un chat; they do not tell each other to let sleeping dogs lie, they warn that il ne faut pas réveiller le chat qui dort;and they do not have other fish to fry, ils ont d’autres chats à fouetter. And yes, the French are whipping those cats in that last expression, but English speakers have no cause to feel morally superior: the French simply complain about cramped accommodation that il n’y a pas la place de se retourner (‘there isn’t room to turn around’), without having recourse to cruel and unusual cat-swinging to express their dissatisfaction.

Occasionally the two languages agree on the uses of cats: both of us can play cat and mouse with someone / jouer au chat et à la souris avec quelqu’un, for instance. And there must presumably be some link between the French expression, donner sa langue au chat, meaning to give up trying to guess something, and the not-quite-matching English idea that a ‘cat’s got your tongue’ when you’re too inhibited to speak, with its equally peculiar image. They also have a good stock of cat-expressions all their own, such as the proverbs, chat échaudé craint l’eau froide’ (‘a scalded cat fears cold water’), which is near-equivalent to our ‘once bitten, twice shy’, but, when you think about it, isn’t exactly the same idea, plus the wonderfulla nuit, tous les chats sont gris’ (‘at night, all cats are grey’), which has nothing like it at all in English, and refers in French to how darkness (and, perhaps, other kinds of obscurity) hide the differences by which we classify and distinguish people. It’s incidentally also the title of the chapter of Les Trois Mousquetaires I talked about here, where d’Artagnan pretends to be the Comte de Wardes in Milady’s darkened bedroom.

Finally, it’s not just in language, but in French culture generally that cats have prominence. No less than three of the poems in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal are about cats. Here’s my favourite:

Les Chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

And (loosely) translated by Roy Campbell :

Cats

Sages austere and fervent lovers both, 
In their ripe season, cherish cats, the pride 
Of hearths, strong, mild, and to themselves allied 
In chilly stealth and sedentary sloth.

Friends both to lust and learning, they frequent 
Silence, and love the horror darkness breeds. 
Erebus would have chosen them for steeds 
To hearses, could their pride to it have bent.

Dreaming, the noble postures they assume 
Of sphinxes stretching out into the gloom 
That seems to swoon into an endless trance.

Their fertile flanks are full of sparks that tingle, 
And particles of gold, like grains of shingle, 
Vaguely be-star their pupils as they glance.

The others are here and here. Better known even than Baudelaire’s cats, though, is the cat belonging to sixteenth-century essayist, and master of thought-provoking quirkiness as literary style, Michel de Montaigne:

Quand je me jouë à ma chatte, qui sçait si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d’elle?’

(‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’)

… he famously wondered, as has many a cat-owner in his wake.

Bons mots: le créneau

Image

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

‘créneau horaire’

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.)

You can

‘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