Les OVNIs

Once you’ve more or less mastered the basics of French conjugation and picked up enough vocabulary to find your way around a conversation, you may think you’ve got it all figured out. That’s when you discover one of the mysteries of spoken French: acronyms and abbreviations for all kinds of words and phrases.

The French may be forgiven for being so enamoured of the short form. Let’s face it, between killer traffic jams, snail-like administrative procedures and the endless verbiage needed to say even the simplest things, you need to save time where you can.

As usual, I stumbled my way through various bloopers and blunders before fully understanding how to use these short forms.

My late Belle-mère was impressed when early on I took a liberal approach to mastering such terms. The baccalaureate exam is called le bac, la climatisation becomes la clim’ and the expression ‘à tout à l’heure’ (see you later), becomes simply ‘à tout!’. I decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

“Ce n’est pas oblig!” I declared one day, when she suggested I should do something or other.

“Quoi?” asked that lady in astonishment, before cracking up. I learned that for all the French love short forms, it is obligatory (and not ‘oblig’) to wait for someone else to invent them first.

So it is that you must simply learn, case by case, what things are called in spoken French.

That fine institution of French life, la Sécurité Sociale, is called la Sécu, but the organization that you must deal with for financial reasons is called la CPAM (letters spelled out, for Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie). That the special address form CEDEX (pronounced ‘say-dex’) stands for ‘Courrier d’entreprise à distribution exceptionnelle’. That the cute-sounding ‘DOM-TOM’ is code for all those overseas French territories like Guadeloupe.

Needless to say, there is no obvious logic to explain why some acronyms are spelled out letter by letter and others spoken like a word.

Every area of French life has its own set of acronyms and abbreviations. I believe that the high-minded public servants who graduate from the French National School of Administration or l’ENA (pronounced: Lay-na) take entire courses on how to make up complicated names that will create unpronounceable acronyms. Case in point: La loi Hadopi (Haute Autorité pour la diffusion des œuvres et la protection des droits sur internet), an entire administration created to protect the rights of works and people online. What a mouthful! Much easier to talk about les GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), pronounced ‘gaffa’.

If you’re curious, here’s an entire Wikipedia page devoted to common French acronyms.

But don’t worry if you hear one and still feel like an OVNI (objet volant non-identifié) or UFO as we say in French to describe those stranger-in-a-strange-land moments.

Just remember: we are not alone!

Dents-de-lion

Dent-de-lion or pissenlit

Who knew that dandelions are so named after the French words for lion’s teeth? Dent-de-lion. This is one of those light-bulb moments of French learning when you suddenly feel rather smart.

The ubiquitous yellow flowers that most of us consider as weeds are commonly known in France as ‘pissenlit’ (pronounced: peess-ahn-lee). Literally: piss in bed. Apparently this is because the plant has diuretic properties. It’s official name is Taraxacum.

I’ve heard of dandelion wine but never tasted it. Thank god. (At least I assume so: can anyone correct me?). I have enjoyed the bitter tasting dandelion greens in salad. They are called lion’s teeth for the jagged edges of their leaves.

Dandelion greens

At the moment in our area dandelions are everywhere, along with many lovely plants of intense yellow flower that seem to reach a fever pitch in spring like daffodils, forsythia, colza (rapeseed).

Colza, aka rapeseed

Here they are like waves of gold on the gentle slopes in neighbouring Switzerland.

I love their bright splash of yellow, their hardy nature and even their blowsy Afro-style heads when they go to seed.

How do you feel about dandelions?

Les dents qui courent après le bifteck

Photo credit: Louise Pierga, artiste créatrice de concepts visuels

After the dramatic events of this week in Paris, it’s time for some comic relief. One of my favourite French expressions provides plenty of that.

Let’s unpack this phrase in all its illustrative glory.

As you will see from the delightful drawing above, ‘les dents’ are teeth, an easy enough translation for anyone familiar with the dentist. The ones pictured here are an orthodontist’s delight (or nightmare) as they are veering off at an unhealthy forward angle.

Pictured next to the teeth, towards which they might be said to run or ‘courir’, is a piece of beef. For further clarity, the distance needed to ‘parcourir’ is also shown.

Why the French refer to steak as ‘bifteck’ remains a mystery to me. Just as why they refer to roast beef as ‘le rosbif’ and even more curiously, why the Brits are called les rosbifs. Is it revenge for the French being called frogs?

This blog for English learners (in French) provides some good answers to that question: roast beef is a traditional English dish, the British soldiers traditionally wore red coats and the fair-skinned English tend to turn bright red in the continental sun. (Ironically, though, Brits are not known for enjoying meat rare enough to be that red!)

So, back to our analysis of the French expression. The translation is: teeth that run after the roast beef. In other words, buck teeth. I love it because it is so colourful and immediately creates a funny word picture of what is being described. As the French would say, c’est très imagé.

Whether or not this implies that Brits are very hungry or they tend to have buck teeth, I shall not venture to say. You have not grown as long in tooth as I have without learning to keep dangerous opinions to yourself.

By the way, the English expression ‘long in the tooth’ does not translate in French. ‘Avoir les dents longues’ means to be ambitious.

Do you have a favourite French expression?

Les interdictions

No dogs allowed. No campfires allowed. No entry, no talking, no breathing. Okay, I made those last two up.

The first thing the visitor notices on arriving in France is the number of things that are you are not allowed to do.

And you quickly become familiar with this word: interdit. It is used to describe both the things themselves that are prohibited (e.g. chiens interdits), the act of forbidding, interdire (to prohibit) and the resulting bans, interdictions.

You are not allowed to walk on the grass, wear your helmet in a store, ride a bike while wearing a headset. Aside from speeding, there are a great many things you are not allowed to do while driving in France. Not being allowed to use a smart phone even hands-free is one that drives me nuts. My guess is that ‘the GPS made me do it’ will not be a viable excuse if you are stopped by the police.

Alternative wordings include the oft-seen ‘défense de fumer’ (no smoking). But défense de cracher? Apparently people needed to be told not to spit in the Paris metro back in the 70s.

Fortunately, the second thing you learn is that many if not most of these bans are somewhat theoretical. This is what makes life bearable in France. A great many rules of which only a small percentage are to be taken absolutely seriously.

The challenge is knowing which ones. A lot of faux pas (as I’ve posted about before) can be made if you get it wrong, and you may want to weigh the chances of getting caught against the associated penalty.

I know, for example, that the park where I walk my dogs by the lake is theoretically forbidden to dogs (and horses) all year long but that the chances of anyone objecting or even seeing me in the off-season winter months are virtually nil. Also, it’s a dumb law. So, I take it as my civic duty to break it as often as possible.

Where we live not far from the border with Switzerland, I have been stopped for driving a car with Swiss plates. It seems there is an obscure rule that you are not allowed to drive a company car across a border other than to go to or from work. I’m pretty sure they only trot that one out when they’re looking for an excuse to get up someone’s nose. Thankfully I got myself out of it by arguing with the cops — when they caught up with me. The thing was, it had not been at all clear that I was being asked to stop. I pointed this out in firm but polite terms while expressing my astonishment at the crazy rule. It was one of those times I realized that I had become truly French. My formerly polite Canadian self would never have dared to argue with a police officer.

What forbidden action or item would you ban? Or, as some have suggested, would you create this as a rule?

Forbidden to forbid!

Faire de l’oseille

A friend asked me how work was going the other day. “Ca va? Tu fais de l’oseille?”

I had to laugh. It’s a funny sort of expression, and joking is just about the only way you can safely refer to money in conversation.

If there are a lot of words to describe something in a language, is that an indication of its importance? There are certainly a bunch of ways to talk about money in French: argent (money, but also silver), monnaie (currency but also coins or change), liquide (cash), blé (bread), fric, pognon, thune (dough, money, bucks).

Between blé (wheat) and galette (cake), both slang terms for money, do I hear echoes of Marie Antoinette? (“Let them eat cake!” Which, by the way, was one of the original ‘fake news’ and wrongly attributed to that hapless royal.

I like the sound of the word oseille, and the quirkiness of the expression. It reminds me of what we might call in English, ‘the green stuff’. To be fair, we have quite a few ways of talking about money: cash, bucks, George Washingtons, dough, moolah, do-re-mi, rolling in it. Most of these are pretty dated, like moi. I’ll have to rely on any younger bucks among you to update my lingo.

We all need money to live. Having enough not to have to count it all the time certainly makes life easier. It is, however, one of the great taboos of the French culture. It doesn’t do to talk about, to show it off, or spend it too obviously. Money is not something people tend to talk about. How much things cost or, worse, how much you make. Don’t mention the inheritance you got when your grandfather died. Or what you paid for your house. You might as well ask someone their age, religion or political party while you’re at it.

This may well be true in most cultures. But in France I would go further and suggest that people have an issue with wealth, period. It doesn’t do to be rich around here. Thankfully, I am not. And if one day I win the lottery, it’s just a hop across the lake to Switzerland.

The oseille herb, on the other hand, does have real value hiding among its acidic green leaves. When cooked, they reveal a lovely flavour that is delicious in omelettes, sauces and soups. You may know it as sorrel.

How do you like your oseille?