Le leader sheep

Leader sheepThe other day I heard someone on the radio talk about le leader sheep. While I have lived here long enough to be able to recognize when the French speak franglais, it nonetheless took me by surprise. And the rather strange image of the leader sheep popped into my mind.

It’s funny because we tend to think of sheep as followers. If we hear about people behaving ‘like a bunch of sheep’ we will imagine them blindly following. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s what leadership is all about?

There is something endearing about the French use of English words. It’s as if certain concepts must be expressed in the original version as they simply do not exist in French. Business French is strewn with such jargon, sometimes to the point where it is difficult to know which language is being spoken. Some very funny examples were immortalized by the French minister Annick Girardin in an open letter to the business world, shared here.

I remember once asking a colleague: Surely there must be a French word for leader? “Oui,” she said. “Un meneur d’hommes.”

“Hommes?” I asked. But what about women? My colleague explained that ‘hommes’ in this context is meant in the broad sense (sorry, bad pun) to also include les femmes. Ah oui, bien sûr.

One of the reasons I like living in France is that the cult of the politically correct is slower to catch on here. They may not have a word for leadership but they are also less like sheep. Come to think of it, getting the French to follow anybody is a challenge.

Care to share your experience of leadership or leader sheep?

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?

The naughtiest word in French

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Sea coconut, popularly known as ‘coco-fesse’

I will have to preface this one with an apology to readers of delicate sensibility. (Although it is doubtful that I have any such readers, given my penchant for foul language.)

You may be forgiven for thinking that the naughtiest word in the French language isn’t really very bad at all. After all, it has three letters, not four. And it has a legitimate meaning and place in the dictionary. Literally: the posterior of the human or animal anatomy, or the base of a lamp

Have you guessed?

Cul. More politely, le derrière, les fesses. English equivalent, depending on your origins and upbringing: backside, bum, butt, arse or ass.

It can be perfectly innocent, which is also why it’s naughty. I once heard a woman at the office describe a coworker as being ‘un peu cul-cul.’ She said this in a low voice, so at first I thought she meant something sexual. Then realized it just meant ‘niais’ which is rather silly or stupid.

There is a whole series of French expressions in which ‘cul’ plays the leading role. Some are perfectly polite but in most cases overly familiar for professional situations. Some of my favorites are: Etre faux-cul (to be fake), tomber sur le cul (to fall over in surprise) or even avoir le cul entre deux chaises (to hesitate between two choices).

And my absolute favorite: ‘cucul la praline.’ If anyone can explain why a candy-coated nut should be the epitome of the ridiculous, please enlighten me.

Here’s one of my beau-père’s favorite expressions: ‘Tu tournes en rond comme une poule qui a mal au cul.’ Literally: You’re turning around like a chicken with a sore butt. I don’t know why a chicken would do this (perhaps after laying too many eggs?) but it does call up an image of someone who doesn’t know what to do next.

In popular terms, however, ‘cul’ is most frequently used to describe a porn film, an extramarital affair, or a sexy something.

I banned this word from my vocabulary years ago, after telling people we lived on a cul-de-sac and being laughed out of the room. Seems living ‘on the ass-end of the bag’ is not as desirable as I’d thought.

That will conclude my insider tour of the seamy underbelly of the French language – at least for now. Feel free to share your own (mis)adventures or favorite faux pas!

The most insulting word in French

Casse-toi-pov'conThis one says a lot about the French, their language and their attitudes toward one another.

While not an insult on its own, one word is often used to add injury to insult.

Hint: it’s not what you might think.

Have you guessed?

‘Pauvre.’ Which means, purely and simply, poor.

Why in the world would the French word for poor be insulting? Do our Gallic cousins consider poverty itself to be an insult? I don’t think so, at least not in material terms. (Moral or intellectual bankruptcy is another matter). It would seem to have more to do with pity, and looking down on someone. When ‘pauvre’ is used in that sense, it’s a fine line between pity and ‘mépris’ (disdain).

But like most things in the French language, it all depends on how it’s used.

‘Mon pauvre’ can be a perfectly pleasant, if familiar, way of addressing a friend, expressing humor and empathy in a difficult situation.

Or it can be ironic and cutting, especially with the addition of another little word (pun intended): ‘petit.’

‘Ma pauvre petite dame.’ (My poor little woman). From mildly patronizing to downright pejorative, you can be sure that whoever says this to you is ‘taking the piss’ as the Brits will say.

But it gets worse.

Add ‘pauvre’ to one of the most commonly used ‘gros mots‘ in the French language, and you get downright insulting.

‘Pauvre con.’

And when you’re the President of France, words like that are not considered appropriate, even less so when making an official visit with full media attention. No matter how badly you’re provoked.

So when Nicolas Sarkozy extended his hand to a bystander at the Paris Agricultural Show back in 2008, and that fellow refused to shake it, saying ‘Don’t touch me, you’ll make me dirty,’ the French were shocked by their former president’s casual reply: ‘Casse-toi alors, pauvre con.’ So much so that it became a meme and something of a cultural phenomenon. Its popular version, ‘Casse-toi pov’con’ can still be found on everything from websites to t-shirts. It certainly marked a fall from grace and was an early sign that his quinquennat would not be renewed.

The word ‘con’ is hard to translate. While its original dictionary definition actually mentions the female sex apparatus (‘vagin’), in common usage it means idiot, or at worst, asshole. (Perhaps not quite as strong a word as the subtitle on the above clip!)

But the degree of insult is completely context-driven. One thing is sure: if you’re ever in a situation where you feel tempted to call someone a ‘pauvre’ so-and-so, be prepared for a strong reaction!

What’s the most insulting thing anyone has ever said to you in French?