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!