Bonnes femmes

I am a good woman but please don’t call me a bonne femme. This is one of those literal translations that gets you into trouble every time. The word ‘bonne’, the feminine form of ‘bon’ or good, is loaded with the potential to insult or outright offend.

‘Une bonne femme’ is the familiar French expression for a woman or a wife. Once a perfectly respectable term, it has now become pejorative. It is not necessarily rude but it should be used with caution.

‘Contes de bonnes femmes’ are old wives tales.

Its homologue, bonhomme, means a friendly little fellow and is often used to refer to children or a bonhomme de neige — snowman. Bonnefemme de neige? Only with tongue firmly in cheek.

Many recipes include the words ‘bonne femme’.  They generally refer to simple, home-cooked dishes like soups, fish and chicken but some are actual culinary references, like sauce bonne femme. Here’s the recipe in English.

La bonne is also a maid. To refer to ‘une bonne à tout faire’ (good for doing everything) is a correct use of the term for hired hep but also has some rather naughty connotations — just google it.

The worst trap is, of course, the easiest one to fall in. Imagine you have want to say that a woman is good. A good person. Do not, under any circumstances, say “elle est bonne.” This has a sexual connotation that will upset or confuse or even just amuse your audience.

What is it with the feminine forms of words in French? Another word, chatte, is even worse. It is virtually impossible to talk about one’s female cat without feeling like an extra in a bad porn film. I speak from painful experience. Each year when I take my, ahem, pussy, to the veterinarian for her shots I find myself doing mental gymnastics to avoid the dreaded term. We have two cats, a male and a female, so at one point in the conversation it becomes necessary to distinguish them. The flush on my face as I leave the vet’s office is not just from schlepping the two cat carriers.

The photo featured above is from the 1960 ‘new wave’ film by Claude Chabrol, Les Bonnes Femmes. I haven’t seen it but want to after discovering the post about it on this fabulous blog for fans of world cinema.

The problem, ironically, is finding such films in France. You can stream it on Amazon Prime in the US but not in France. Here you can buy the DVD but what’s the point? I only want to watch it once.

I’ve been thinking lately how much of our cultural gender bias is embedded in language. I’m not one to agree with the substitution of ‘their’ for personal pronouns like his and her; that is a deformation of the language that my inner word nerd finds offensive. But I wouldn’t mind the creation of a new, neutral term.

And I would be very happy if someone found a way to say ‘bonne’ nicely in French.

Any thoughts?