La vache!

Pity the poor cow. They give us milk and cheese, meat and leather, are the source of sustenance and prosperity. They are venerated in some cultures yet treated like so much merchandise and with a flagrant lack of humanity in others. Adding insult to injury, the word ‘cow’ is never used as a compliment.

‘La vache’ expresses surprise in French. Whether a ‘wow’ or a ‘damn’, either positive or negative. It is slang but not vulgar.

However, to say someone or something is ‘vache’ means it’s not nice. Nasty, mean, tough… Arrête d’être vache! Stop being a cow!            

To do something mean to someone is to ‘faire une vacherie’. It seems somehow unjust that the language always attributes the feminine gender to such behaviour. I’ve seen it in both men and women. Note that in French, however, it is ‘une vache’ but ‘un boeuf’.

Until recently I thought these were just different names for male and female. I did not know that milk cows (‘vache laitière’, not to be confused with ‘vache à lait’…) are a completely different subset of the bovine species from beef cattle. Ah, the ignorance of the city mouse!

However, to be really mean and horrible takes being a cow a step further.

In my early days in the French corporate world, a colleague pulled me aside and told me to watch myself around so-and-so. “Attention,” she said, “C’est une peau de vache.

“A cow skin? Whatever does that mean?” I asked. Turns out that this is worst kind of person, the one who will smile to your face and stab you in the back as soon as you’re not looking. Worse, they will go to any length to get what they want.

Yet the poor cow’s hide makes such a lovely chair!

Aside from having their name so often taken in vain, the French cow’s life is not so bad. We have many small, family-run farms where just a few cattle graze in the fields.

Perhaps this is why the most famous of French cows is always smiling. The cheesy laughing cow of course!

Do you have a favourite expression involving cows?

‘Impossible n’est pas français’

The first time I heard this statement, I took it for corporate speak. I was working in a big company that had set what seemed like an impossible objective to be achieved in a ridiculously short period of time.

“Pas possible,” I may have scoffed. ‘Pas possible’ being one of those easy expressions that non-native speakers pick up and use like gold. They’re so easy, and most of the time, they work. Not this time. My boss turned to me and said, a steely look in her eye: “Impossible n’est pas français.”

This improbable statement turned out to be true. The organization rallied, pulled out all the stops and met the impossible deadline. Proving that the French are capable of pulling off stunts that others might discount as not being feasible.

It struck me as a contradiction. Given how long things normally take in this country, the delays due to strikes and disagreements among various teams and members of personnel, how could we have achieved so much, so quickly? I guess it comes down to a certain military mentality that takes over in times of crisis. I’ve also seen it in action at large events of incredible scale that the French are so good at pulling off. Operationally, the French are capable of amazing feats.

That is why when Macron announced that our beloved Notre-Dame de Paris will be rebuilt within five years, I believe it can be done. Whether or not that happens will depend on whether the government is able to get everybody on side. If time is wasted arguing over the best approach (artisanal or industrial?), the funding (a huge uproar has already begun over the donations raised by private capital — why can’t a fraction of that money be found for social causes?), we may well miss the goal. But if everyone pulls together, it’s possible.

As for the proverb, it goes back to Napoléon Bonaparte, who wrote in 1808 to one of his generals that impossible was not a word he understood. So was born the expression ‘Impossible n’est pas français’. Popularized by Balzac, it became the title of books, films and this song by Sheila, in 1967

P.S. There is a mistake in the YouTuber’s title – it is ‘français’ the language, not ‘Français’ the people — even if many prefer to think the latter!