BITS OF FRENCH


Thomas Russell Wingate  

August—October 2009

May 2010

April, June 2011

July, August, December 2012

May 2016

  




1

 

 

 

Two Thinkers

 

 

California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

August 1973 (age 26).

 

2

 

The verb entreprendre—“to undertake (to do something, to get something done)”—has provided English with two nouns: enterprise and entrepreneur.

English-only speakers often mispronounce the second. Its concluding syllable is pronounced as in purr and stir, not as in endure or allure.

3


Here are pejoratives—obviously franglais—for which I have great admiration.

la paperasserie red tape, paperwork
un paperassier
une paperassière
bureaucrat, penpusher

4


The French are very particular about the names of sources of income. Writers should pay attention. If we don’t look out for ourselves, who will?

Manual workers receive un salaire. Civil servants (including teachers) receive un traitement. Military persons receive une solde. Domestic servants receive des gages (mpl).

Office workers and clerks receive les appointements (mpl).

Minor lawyers (notaires, avoués) receive les émoluments (mpl).

Actors, actresses, and musicians receive un cachet.

Les artisans et les membres des professions libérales—lawyers (avocats), doctors, architects—receive les honoraires (mpl) for their advice to clients. They have made this the most important distinction in France. Naturellement, they are self-employed.

Entrepreneurs, not quite so lofty, might speak of le bénéfice or la perte. They always have le risque on their minds. They do not have une garantie.

To make ends meet, writers (and others) must often be reckoned among les salariés and the self-employed (“free lancers”) at the same time.

Writers (les écrivains) are more prestigieux in France than in America. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

5


Famous and useful phrases:

Point d’argent, point de Suisses.

No money (silver), no Swiss [mercenary soldiers]; no one will bleed for you without being paid; talk is not pay.

Qui s’excuse, s’accuse.

Who excuses himself, accuses himself.

Le monde va de lui-même.

The world goes by itself.

Le style, c’est l’homme.

The style is the man.

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?

But where are the snows of yesteryear?

(François Villon; the most famous line in French literature.)


6


In English, kilometer and kiloliter are pronounced to rhyme with “pillow eater.”

 

This is easy to remember.

 

Barometer and thermometer do not rhyme with international units of  distance and volume. How ignorant are you willing to appear?

 

Klick is a barbarism. A writer may have a soldier use it in speaking, but in his own narrative and conversation the writer, being in the written culture, should shun it. Apocalypse Now should not set a trend.



7


La Nouvelle-Orléans

Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Let the good times roll.


Paris (correct)

Laissez rouler les bons temps.

American

          hors d’oeuvres (“oar doves”, “oar dervz”)

 

Correct

 

          hors-d’oeuvre (masculine singular and plural)

 

8


French distinguishes between what is false and what is lacking. English is coming to incorporate the prefix faux in a way that is indelicate.

Faux (singular and plural) is the masculine form of the adjective. It is pronounced like the English foe, to which we can safely say it is related.

Fausse is the feminine form. (The plural takes an s.) It rhymes with the English boast without the t.

What is meant is: contrary to truth, contrary to exactness, contrary to appearances. Thus, we talk about something being faux-leather.

The intransitive verb manquer has no English equivalent, which is why you come across the adjective manqué. (The feminine takes an e, plurals take an s.)

What is meant is: lacking in some essential quality, noticeable as much for what it lacks as for what it has.

You might say of a photograph or a meal that it lacks something and is therefore almost good enough but not quite. Here you would import manqué.

A career gone sour would be une carrière manquée in France and a career manqué over here.

9


The French are apt to insist: “If it is not clear, it is not French.” (Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français.) Antoine de Rivarol won a prize for that in 1782.

No one ever said that about English.

The French regard English as une langue manquée.

But they might be trapped by une fausse idée claire.

10


Traditional

Nom de plume

Nom de théâtre

Nom de guerre


Innovative

Nom de cyber


11


In 1983 the French government issued computers to every home it taxed. The Minitel Computer Network was intended to advance the new technology. Within fifteen years Minitel was so obviously a débâcle that its government of origin softly expressed regret (but not culpability). The énarques and their dirigisme ruined the chance that French would be the language of the Internet.

French is secure as the language of romance, diplomacy, cooking, attire, cosmetics, dancing, fencing, chess, and revolutions ending in tyranny. Its beauty will ensure its strength in belles-lettres, beaux-arts, and patois.

12


Be alert to geographical subtleties.

Marseilles Marseille
Lyons Lyon
Brussels Bruxelles
Antwerp Anvers
Bohemia (country) La Bohême
Bohemia (lifestyle, Puccini)      La Bohème
The Bronx Bronx
The Hague La Haye
New Orleans La Nouvelle-Orléans
Cairo Le Caire
Mecca La Mecque
Havana La Havane
Cape Town
 (also Colony, Province)
Le Cap
Mexico (country) Mexique
Mexico City Mexico
Jordan (country) Jordanie (f)
Jordan (river) Jourdain (m)
Delphi (Greece) Delphes (fpl)
Delft (Holland) Delphe
Golden Horn (Istanbul, Vladivostok)  Corne (f) d’Or
Golden Gate (San Francisco) Barrière (f) d’Or


                   13

 

The Sunday Times (London) cannot resist assuring us: “To be born an English-speaker is to win one of the top prizes in life’s lottery. And this can be said without a hint of triumphalism, sexism, or racism, without annoying anybody much except the French.”

 

French happily exports cachet, connoisseur, de luxe, elegance, elite, etiquette, finesse, grandeur, intrigue, largesse,nuance, panache, premiere, prestige, promenade, rationale, and regime. Does it not (silently, indirectly) speak worlds that English attempts no replacements?   

   

14


In English, French, and Latin, we pronounce “ph” as though it were “f.” In French we pronounce “mp” as though it were “n” and “mt” as though it were “nt.”

La comtesse.

Le comptrolleur.


In the United States, an important financial officer, usually an accountant, is “the controller” in the business world and “the comptroller” (e.g., of the currency) in the government. In English, both words are pronounced “controller.”

15


National symbols are meant to attract abiding attention. Often they do this by ignoring realities.

 

On the royal arms of England we see a lion, a unicorn, and a motto in Norman French. The badge of the Order of the Garter also bears a motto in Norman French.

 

On the royal standard of Scotland we see a red lion walking upright, fenced in by eight red fleurs-de-lis. The badge of the Order of the Thistle bears a motto in Latin.

 

On the flag of Wales we see a red winged dragon that can have no hope of getting airborne.

 

The absence of English is as conspicuous as the presence of animals and flowers not native to any part of Great Britain.

 

In two centuries France has undergone a tizzy of regime changes. One thing they all had in common: their mottos and slogans were entirely in French.

 

France has the best of all national symbols: Marianne. In some sense, she belongs in your arms or your son’s.

 

                   16

 

Anatole France¹ was as French as French can be.

 

La langue française est une femme. Et cette femme est si belle, si fière, si modeste, si hardie, si touchante, si voluptueuse, si chaste, si noble, si familière, si folle, si sage, qu’on l’aime du toute son âme, et qu’on n’est jamais tenté de lui être infidèle.

 

The French language is a woman. And that woman is so beautiful, so proud, so modest, so bold, so touching, so voluptuous, so chaste, so noble, so familiar, so mad, so wise, that one loves her with all one’s soul, and is never tempted to be unfaithful to her.

 

Whether English is our first or second language, we don’t personify it that way.²

 

                   17

 

Their most recent constitution (1958) tells you at the start what Frenchmen cherish most.

 

          The language of the Republic shall be French.

          The national emblem shall be the blue, white and red tricolour flag.

          The national anthem shall be La Marseillaise.

          The motto of the Republic shall be «Liberty Equality Fraternity».

Its principle shall be: government of the people, by the people, for the people.

 

Lincoln’s famous words are not his own.  

 

This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.

 

Thus did Wycliffe explain his English translation (1384).³

Two mongrel languages keep trying to outdo each other

                   18

 Diplomatic officers emphasize their importance and legal status by French initials placed after their names and upon automobile plates.

 

          C.D.            Corps (m) Diplomatique.

 

Or, in imperishable jest: contrabandeur (m) distingué (“high-class smuggler”).

 

                  19

 

Pooling three thick bilingual dictionaries, we find:

 

auteur (m): author, maker, originator; founder (of race); perpetrator (of crime); promoter, sponsor (of scheme); achiever, contriver, framer; by extension and context: painter, sculptor, composer, inventor, etc. // femme auteur (m): woman writer // droit (m) d’auteur: copyright // droits (mpl) d’auteur: royalties.

 

distingué(e)(adj): distinguished; eminent, noted (writer, politician, etc.); refined (taste, hearing, etc.) gentlemanly, ladylike, genteel; elegant; smart (costume) // avoir un air distingué: to look distinguished // naissance distinguée: high (noble) birth.

 

French culture carefully and permanently elevates the auteur above the écrivain (“writer”), who is in turn superior to the écrivassier (“scribbler”). Money is irrelevant here.

 

lettres (fpl): letters, literature // belles-lettres (fpl): humanities // homme (m) de lettres: man of letters // femme (f) de lettres, bas-bleu (m): woman of letters, bluestocking // lettré(e) (adj): lettered, literate // lettré (m) scholar // les lettrés (mpl): the literati. 

 

Scrutineers of this website are well on their ways to becoming auteurs distingués.

 

NOTES

 

 

1 See Wikipedia.

2 See Bits of English III on website for a recent counter-example.

3 See Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. See Wikipedia for John Wycliffe,

   William Tyndale, and what befell them, their writings, and their

   followers

 

 

 



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