E dans l’o

I never learned Latin. The dead languages were considered passé in the public education system when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. Latin was relegated to religious study. I often regret this lack. It would have been helpful to understand the root meanings of many French words.

I’ve only just discovered that in French the combination of ‘o’ and ‘e’ as œ is called ‘e dans l’o’. The funny thing is that when spoken this way it sounds like ‘oeufs dans l’eau’ (eggs in water). It’s an easy mnemonic and a fun way of describing this feisty little coupling of vowels in French.

In these times of confinement, of being stuck together, I am oddly moved by the poetry of this union. ‘Cœur’ offers the perfect example; o is joined to e just as hearts are joined in love. Old friends and lovers, siblings and kindred spirits who know each other intimately even after years of absence. This is the beauty of e dans l’o.

And there are so many other words with œ that represent the coming together of efforts or things: œuvre, a work of art or body of work; chœur, a choir; vœu, a wish; nœud, a knot.

Photo by Will O on Unsplash

I saw an œuvre last week that stirred my cœur as such things rarely do. A beautiful, original, heart-stopping film that filled me with sorrow and joy, while reminding me that what we are going through right now is nothing. Nothing at all.

It was a real discovery, having never seen any of the director/writer/actor’s work. Now I look forward to watching more. Taika Waititi has a unique talent for blending the dramatic with the comic. Just exactly my cup of tea.

Perhaps isolation gives us a different point of view on things we take for granted. Little things. A beautiful day. A cup of tea. A call from a friend.

Πis a small thing. Yet even tiny things can achieve a great deal. Like a virus wreaking havoc on the world as we know it. This tiny combination of cells is behind the pandemic that is bringing our economy to a halt, ripping lives apart, making a mockery of politics.

But it works both ways. By joining together in our efforts, by caring for one another, perhaps we can each make a difference. However small.

Whatever you do today, do it with cœur.

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

Has anything moved you lately?

Guette au trou

“What are you looking at?” my husband asks.

“The neighbours across the street have a strange car in their driveway,” I say, stepping back from the curtain.

“Guette au trou!”

This conversation or variations on its theme has taken place hundreds of times in recent years. What can I say? I am not a voyeur but our house has a lot of windows. And there’s something about being at home and watching what goes on outside that I find endlessly fascinating.

This, according to the French, makes me a ‘guette au trou’. A spy, a snoop, or a nosey neighbour in common parlance.

For years I heard this expression and assumed that a ‘guette’ was a cute little mouse of some kind hiding in its hole. Ha! A quick google has put an end to that illusion.

The original ‘guette au trou’ is a phrase that was coined to describe the ‘sage femme’ or midwife. Crudely put, it describes the one who literally watches at the hole to see whether the baby is coming. It is derived from the verb ‘guetter’, meaning to watch in the patient way of a cat that is on the lookout for a mouse.

It is not to be confused with the related ‘guet-apens’, a trap or an ambush that is set to catch someone. In the news, people are said to have fallen into or ‘tomber dans un guet-apens’, often with criminal intent.

Interestingly, in both of these expressions ‘guette’ and ‘guet’ are pronounced just like the English word ‘get’. But, when you use it by itself, by saying that someone is on the lookout, ‘il fait le guet’, the pronunciation is more like gay.

All these years in France and I’m only now figuring out the origins of such expressions and how they are spelled or properly pronounced. Sometimes it feels like I’ve only just begun my journey. And on others I feel so rich with untapped knowledge of French that has only now bubbled to the surface of my brain. Language is truly a source of continual learning and inspiration.

Perhaps I’ve been distracted. So many comings and goings, windows to watch from, people scurrying about…

Are you — or do you have — a nosey neighbour?

Péter le feu

‘Péter le feu’ may call up images of a fire-breathing (or farting) dragon, but in French it means to be bursting with energy.

And I’m happy to report that after a long, hot summer, during which my get up and go got up and left, I’ve finally got my mojo back.

Je pète le feu.

This week there’s a definite fall vibe in the air, even though we’re currently enjoying a lovely Indian summer. All those cooler nights and early mornings have me energized and raring to go, even, dare I say, looking forward to the change of season. I love the autumn, always have, with the exception of a few weeks in November when I become convinced of my imminent demise. Something to do with the change of light after we set the clocks back. (Although the EU recently announced they would put an end to this barbaric practice, making me oh-so glad to be part of Europe).

Twice this week I woke up before the alarm clock at 5:30. I’ve gotten back into some healthier eating, drinking and exercise habits (yeah, I know…boring). But I’m exploding with ideas for several writing projects, looking forward to my next vacation and frankly, happy to be alive. It has been ages since I felt this way.

Not to brag or anything. That would be a different kind of péter all together.

‘Se la péter’, to show off, is one of those French expressions I gave up trying to fathom years ago. It is filled with pitfalls for non-natives: if you forget the ‘se’ or the ‘la’ it means something completely different. Like to actually fart. Which is not something most people brag about.

Aside from its less than noble meaning, péter also means to blow up, to explode or to crack. Like a firecracker, un pétard. And it is associated with another verb also used to describe being full of energy: gazer. ‘Ça gaze?’

How or why these explosive terms became associated with being in good health and raring to go is a mystery to me. But it seems the French are well aware of the comic potential of the word and its English cousin. The expression, ‘Salut, ça farte?’ was immortalized by the actor Jean Dujardin back in 2005 when he played a French surf bum obsessed with speaking Franglais called Brice de Nice (jokingly pronounced with a long ‘i’ as in Bryce de Nyce). The film, while silly, became a cult comedy classic.

Alors, ça farte?

Sa langue dans sa poche

chatty-cathy

I’ve never been known for being tongue tied.

When I was a little kid, I talked a blue streak. Family lore has it that my younger brother was assumed to be very quiet because I did all the talking for him: “That’s my brother. His name is David. He doesn’t talk very much.”

The first toy I remember getting for Christmas was a doll called Chatty Cathy. My parents probably hoped for a little relief. You pulled a string in her back and she would say things. After a little while the string broke but I kept chatting.

Things changed when I grew up. Shyness came upon me with the awareness of how I sounded to others, of how little I really knew about so many subjects, and how unpleasant it was to be around a loud mouth know-it-all. Either that or I had already used up all my words. Or at least the nice ones. Cursing became my new friend and I learned to do it with flair. Bloody fucking hell. Holy fuckoly. Fuck a duck.

When I first learned French, I was shy about speaking the language. Afraid of looking foolish, of not being understood or of saying something funny or frankly stupid. But once I came to France, there was no room for being timid. It was speak up or be ignored. So I spoke French and was misunderstood, corrected and laughed at. But I learned.

I learned that French is a language of subtlety and suggestion, that there are many indirect ways around things that we English speakers (or at least, we Chatty Cathy’s) would probably barge right into, feet first. I learned that it is not just what you say, but how you say it.

I also learned to swear with the best of them: merde, putain, fait chier.

I still feel shy at times. Whether with family, friends or professional associates I’m rarely the most talkative person in the room. Sometimes I don’t even answer the phone. But I love a good conversation and cannot resist an argument. And when I have something to say, I cannot remain silent.

The French expression ‘ne pas avoir sa langue dans sa poche’ means to be outspoken, to say what you think.

That’s me in the photo, at a team event a few years ago. With my tongue where I usually keep it.

How about you? Do you speak up or hold your peace – and in which language?

Faut pas confondre

1734420_naturismeThe French language is filled with pitfalls for the non-native speaker. I have personally fallen into so many of them I have permanent bruises on my tongue.

Okay, I exaggerate. But I have become rather good at rolling with the punches when I make a faux pas.

The wonderful thing about an acquired language is that you are allowed to make mistakes. Of course everyone can make mistakes, but it feels like we get a special pardon for bloopers and blunders in French.

One of the my frequent funnies is confusing words that look similar but have very different meanings.

  1. Culot / culotte
    ‘Avoir du culot’ or ‘être culotté’ means to have a lot of nerve. A culotte, on the other hand, describes a type of ladies’ undergarment. ‘Perdre sa culotte’ means to lose one’s shirt, for example in a game of poker. But to go ‘sans culotte’ may require a certain culot.
  2. Naturiste / naturaliste
    You need a lot of culot to go to the plage naturiste (nudist beach). Unless you happen to stumble upon it in the way of a naturalist simply studying the fascinating wildlife. According to the French Naturist Federation, this country is the world’s leading destination for nudists.
  3. Gâteaux / gâteux
    I love cake so this first word is a piece of it. For many years I was confused by the expression ‘Mamie gateaux’, which affectionately describes an over-indulgent grandmother, thinking it had something to do with the verb ‘gâter’ which means to spoil. A word of advice: don’t tell your mother-in-law she is gâteux – senile, doddering or incontinent.
  4. Jambe / jambon
    My jambes (legs) may not be long and slender but they are not quite jambons (hams). Yet.
  5. Cochonnerie / connerie
    Speaking of ham, why do we blame the poor pig for everything? A mere syllable separates the familiar expression for junk food (cochonnerie) from that which describes an act of stupidity (connerie). Do not use either expression when attempting to describe your child’s diet to a pediatrician.
  6. Piéton / pigeon
    French drivers may not always distinguish between them, but pedestrians (piétons) are not pigeons. There are plenty of both on the streets of Paris so when in France it is best to watch where you put your pieds!
  7. Baisser / baiser
    You may well lower (baisser) your eyes. A single ‘s’ is all that separates the act of lowering with a much lower act. Although ‘baiser’ has a place in the dictionary to officially mean kiss (baiser la main), in actual fact it is only ever used to mean to screw or get screwed.

We all know someone who says ‘prostrate’ instead of ‘prostate’. Do you ever mix up your meanings in English or any other language?