Over the last few years, I’ve pretty much lived the idiom: “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Bouncing between Greater Boston, New York, and Paris, I can attest that fond-growing is by far my most consistent cardio workout. After some initial elation at returning to New York at the end of a long Parisian winter and crappy bout of melancholia, I find myself – surprise! – occasionally longing again for the highlights of the Hexagon.
Though I’m happy to be where I am, the symptoms of withdrawal are familiar — crossing my eyes when scrolling through web feeds so I can’t see photos of France posted by expat bloggers, fingering necklaces with delicate Eiffel Tower charms in trendy accessories boutiques, perking up my ears at the lilt of the French language, whether overheard in the subway or the streets of New York … All this adopted-homesickness, coupled with having to maintain a long distance relationship, isn’t exactly fun.
Ironically, though, fun is the antidote to this well-known stage of reverse culture shock. Putting myself out there, overcoming social inertia, and facing life with humor I’ve found is the best way to cope.
With that in mind, I’m taking some time today to just laugh at the French language. Since reading Mallarmé isn’t helping me to feel any better about the distance, I’ll rant about some ways French – commonly thought of as the language of love – is downright silly instead.
1) French people sometimes speak like children in a conservative ’50s household.
If you took French in secondary school, you probably remember those textbooks with pictures of people in single-color sweaters, light wash jeans, and white sneakers. In reality, the French haven’t dressed this way for some twenty odd years, but the surprising thing is, they sometimes speak as if they were still living in this imaginary idyll.
Take the pseudo-expletive, “mince!” This is pretty much the equivalent of “darn” in American English (i.e. a very tame word), but it’s used with surprising frequency in everyday French. Besides its Leave it to Beaver propriety, what really makes it goofy is the fact that it also means “skinny,” “thin,” or “slim.” Thus, I always have to choke back a laugh whenever Z stubs his toe and cries out what sounds to me like “skinny!”
That same whiff of childishness surrounds another popular French exclamation: “nickel!” The name of this metal is uttered to mean “super!” “great!” or “awesome!” While I can clearly see the evolution of its meaning from the metal, to an adjective meaning “spotless” and “impeccable,” to a general expression of approval — by golly, gee whiz! I still can’t quite shake the idea that its usage would be better limited to those under the age of five.
2) They clean with serpillières.
Speaking of ’50s households, one of the few times I tried to do a thorough cleaning of our apartment in Paris, Z and I got into a fight over this ridiculous word.
As I despairingly looked upon a dirty kitchen floor, I asked Z for a mop.
“What’s a mop?” he asked.
“You know, to wipe the floor.”
He returned with an old rag. “Here you go.”
I gaped at the sad shred of cloth he had handed me and – blanching at the prospect of wiping the floor on my hands and knees – snapped like a true diva, “I asked for a mop!”
“That is a mop,” he insisted heatedly. “It’s a serpillière. Here, I’ll prove it to you. It’s in the dictionary!”
It turns out the source of our confusion was a sloppy translation. In fact, the French rarely use mops. The closest tool they have is a broom handle with a single rag attached to the bottom, and the word serpillière can refer either to this broom-handle-with-rag (an approximation of a “mop”), OR simply to the rag itself (no broom handle necessary). A bit of linguistic laziness can thus mean the difference between getting one’s hands dirty and my preferred method of cleaning: just prodding at stuff with a very long stick.
3) They use Verlan, also known as French pig Latin.
I remember when, as a preteen, I first learned how to say things in pig Latin. My insufferability instantly shot up as I went around shouting, “ELLO-HAY! An-cay ou-yay understand-way e-may?!” Fortunately for all involved, I quickly tired of this little trick and reverted back to normal speech within a few hours.
Well, the French learned verlan, their version of pig Latin — and they just never reverted back. Verlan is so incorporated into the language now that no one bats an eye if you express gratitude with a “ci-mer” instead of “merci.” Even hardened criminals love this wordplay. You’ll find the phrase “f*ck les keufs” articulated in the graffiti of downtrodden neighborhoods, conveying disdainful threats to the police through a curious mishmash of English and verlan.
I love this bizarre transformation of the French language. I especially like to imagine the equivalent situation playing out in the US, perhaps on an episode of Cops. As burly police officers bear down on some hooligan, I like to picture the offender yelling out obscenities in pig Latin. “UCK-FAY OU-YAY!” he’d cry indignantly. “UUUUUCK-FAY OUUUUU-YAY!”
4) Atypique (“atypical”) is used as a euphemism for ugly.
I was able to add this sardonic gem to my vocabulary while following the French reality show La Belle et ses Princes Presque Charmants (literally “The Beauty and Her Prince Almost-Charmings”). The show rips off an old American series called Average Joe, which pitted a team of fratty hunks against a team of “average Joes” (guys whose looks were somewhat less breathtaking) for the attentions of a conventionally hot chick. In the French version, I kept hearing members of the team of hunks referring to their less comely opponents as having physiques atypiques or “atypical physiques.” Confused, I turned to Z: “Don’t they mean physiques typiques, since their opponents are supposed to be average looking?”
“No,” explained Z, “They’re making fun of them for their bodies.”
“But their bodies are just average,” I argued. “I thought that was the whole point of the show.”
“Yeah, but atypique here means they’re not good looking,” shrugged Z.
I groaned. Of course. No way the contemporary French population would have missed an opportunity to invert their words.
5) There’s no translation for “rolling one’s eyes.”
Now that I’m putting together this list, I’m glad to be inside a country where I can express exasperation with a satisfying eyeroll. This tried and true outlet for my inner petulant child simply does not exist in France. It took me a while to pick up on this subtle difference; after all, the French are so great at complaining vehemently, the fact that I had never once seen nor read of someone rolling their eyes just didn’t enter my consciousness.
I finally wised up while reading some trashy, French internet forums. Unlike in American forums, when people got snarky with one another, there was no mention of eyerolling. Thinking I’d just missed something obvious, I casually asked Z how one would write “eyeroll” in French. When my query was met with radio silence, something clicked inside my mind.
“WAIT A MINUTE. YOU GUYS DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES!” I shouted accusingly.
“Well, we kinda do.”
Supposedly, there is an approximation of eyerolling in French, which is expressed through the phrase: lever les yeux au ciel (literally, “to raise one’s eyes to the sky”). While this gesture is closely related, it is most definitely not the same. For one, the French version contains an implicit appeal to a higher power, which is not necessarily true of the good ol’ eyeroll. Moreover – as I discovered after several minutes of rigorous, scientific personal experimentation – my American upbringing had made it almost impossible for me to simply raise my eyes, without giving them a quick tour of the backs of my eye sockets.
I guess that’s just how I roll.
These are some of my annoyances with the French tongue. Feel free to share yours!