The French have finally admitted it. Their country is now a middle-ground global power. However, the standing of France at the time of the Sun King and the Lumières has remained so etched in the international mindset that its past grandeur is still present today. Linguist and semiologist Marie Treps describes this phenomenon in her deliciously malicious latest work, presenting a multitude of words and expressions that prove the influence of French on a significant number of languages. And English is top of the list.
French manners is the first field celebrated by these words. Since the arrival in London of a large French community fleeing the Revolution, the capital’s high society has used and abused words such as “madame”, “mademoiselle”, “au revoir”, “à votre santé”, “bon appétit” and “bon voyage”. Those in the know also delight in locutions that add a little glamour to the conversation, such as “à propos”, “en passant”, “soi-disant”, “bien entendu”, “comme ci comme ça”, “à coup sûr”, “coup de grâce”, “déjà vu” and “tout de même”. Expressions such as “noblesse oblige”, “un je ne sais quoi”, “crème de la crème”, “à corps perdu” and “folie des grandeurs” are willingly slipped into discussions at every opportunity.
Whether in Berlin, Madrid, Sofia or Rome, Parisian fashion was the standard for centuries. And along with clothing and accessories, French words that described them also arrived in European capitals. The English and the Americans, for example, may not know the word soutien-gorge, but they are all aware of the word “bra”, which is merely a diminutive of the French word brassière.
While French chic – known as the “French touch” to Anglophones – may be a little old-fashioned, it continues to fascinate. It can also be found in the home: “French roof” (in England), “balcony”, “terrace”, “veranda” and “marquee” are just a few examples taken from French.
And of course there is the field of gastronomy. Regardless of the European language, many terms reflect a very French love of cuisine and service. We need look no further than French fries. The same can be said for bread: in Canada and the UK, many people enjoy eating “French loaf”, and “French bread”, sometimes referred to as “French stick”.
It is worth remembering, however, that the Anglophone world’s opinion of the French is far from spotless. There is no lack of praise for French elegance and sophistication, but there are also other, less complimentary attributes.
For a start, the French hardly have a reputation for courtesy. While those who disappear quietly in Paris are said to filer à l’anglaise, in London these boors are said to “take French leave”.
When it comes to disparagement, the English and the Americans don’t mess around. Before letting out a wave of swear words, it is customary to apologize in advance by saying “pardon my French!” In the same vein, the expression “to speak French” is a synonym for speaking vulgarly. Which makes sense, as of course the French think of little else! This explains the myriad of expression linked to sexuality. A “French lover” is of course no insult. But the same cannot be said of “French disease”, a name given to syphilis by the English, who have also offered such terms as “French fever”, “French gout”, “French ache” and “French pox”. Not content, the English also say “to take French lessons” to refer to contracting a venereal disease. This sticky situation could of course be avoided with the use of a “French Letter” – a condom in English – which the Americans enjoy calling a “French cap”, a French ticket” and even a “French safe”.
As for the world-renowned “French kiss”, there is often more than meets the eye. In both the U.S.A. and the UK, this term is used to refer to oral sex.
The Americans also say “French tart” to describe a frivolous woman, while a “French vanilla” is a sexy white woman.
Other clichés that have stood the test of time include the supposed dirtiness of the French. Their inordinate use of perfume and aftershave is meant to hide the bad smell. Little water, lots of eau de toilette, and we have what the Anglophones call a “French bath”.
French has also become synonymous with ineptitude. A “French pigeon” is a term to describe poor work, referring to a bird shot out of season. And a “French screwdriver” is in fact a hammer, a joke that implies the French are incapable of carrying out even simple tasks.
New Yorkers may see the French as nonchalant, but they are also famed for being specialists in making the right deals. In a word, they’re crooks! In America a “French article” is none other than illegally imported liquor, while illegal drugs are simply labeled “French”.
In our modern times, as Marie Treps reminds us, anti-French sentiment or “French bashing” is still in full swing. But if we get to the heart of the matter, whether they inspire envy or are seen as wholly unpleasant, the strange behavior attributed to the French has always astonished other countries. Especially the English. Although it is true that, as they see it, the biggest flaw the French are guilty of is not being English.
Oh là là, ces Français ! Du pire au meilleur, comment le monde parle de nous, by Marie Treps, La librairie Vuibert, 190 pages, 16.90 euros.
Column published in the May 2016 issue of France-Amérique.