One of the better jokes of recent years was a remark, ascribed to President Bush, that the trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.
Two funny things about the joke. One, of course, is that the word entrepreneur is French and we laugh because we are pleased with ourselves that we knew that. Two is that we think President Bush could never have made that joke in a million years because we assume that he wouldn’t have known.
And it’s true that the Americans do not, generally, speak French and tend to feel ever so slightly inferior because of it. The American humorist Dave Barry once wrote, at the time of a crisis in Haiti, that in order for Americans to look down on the backward and impoverished natives of Haiti, they always had to forget that every Haitian above the age of twelve can pronounce the word fauteuil better than an American would be able to do so.
This would never occur to a Briton. Not being able to speak French does not worry the British. And the fact that so many words come into our language from French, from ‘gigolo’ and ‘charlatan’ to ‘trousseau’ and ‘maisonette’, never unsettles us. Why should it? It hardly occurs to us that they are French imports at all. As with food and drink and cars, we just take as much as we want from abroad and think nothing of it. We call it broad-mindedness. Others call it selfishness.
Americans are different. They have an exaggerated idea of the status of all things French, so they are simultaneously in awe and scornful of them. That is why they make jokes like the one about the up-market New Yorker who exclaims ‘Pretentious? Moi?’, a joke which strikes a Briton as too feeble even to make a cartoon in the New Yorker. That is why no American would ever dream of seeing a French film, only of getting it turned by Hollywood into another film which has had all traces of Frenchness removed.
When French products do well in America, the Americans feel threatened. Nobody in Britain has ever resented the success of Perrier – we actually let a British comedy award be named after Perrier! – but not very long ago there was a firm in Texas which bottled water under the brand name of Artesian and which chose as their slogan: ‘Kick Perrier in the derriere!’ It is a sobering thought that down in Texas there are educated people who are not only in awe of Perrier but think it rhymes with derriére…
British attempts to use French in advertising are crass in a different way. We seem to think that by putting le or la in front of an English word, we can make it sort of more French. ‘Le crunch’ was a slogan for an apple. ‘Le shuttle’ was a slogan for, well, for the shuttle. ‘Le car was the slogan for a car, which was even more clumsy, as ‘le car’ is actually the French for ‘the bus’, but that sort of thing would never bother the British.
The French, oddly, can be creative with English words in a way that English itself cannot. For instance, I have seen the word co-recordman used in a French sports report. It meant ‘someone who is the co-holder of a world record’. A native English speaker could never use English like that, but the French writer didn’t know that and so he got away with it.
He was also lucky to be writing at a time when the import of English was not frowned upon, because the French sometimes love the novelty of foreign words and welcome them, and sometimes hate their invasive nature and promptly put up the trade barriers. It’s all ebb and flow with the French. I once worked with a French film crew in France, and was told by them that there had recently been a crackdown on the use of English jargon during filming.
‘We had always started a new take with the command ‘Action!’, just as in English, but someone decreed that from now on it would have to be a French word, ‘Moteur!’. So the next day on the first take someone yelled ‘Moteur!’ and nothing happened. Everyone said, ‘Moteur? Qu’est-ce que c’est? Comprends pas…’ and so we went back to the American word because nobody accepted the French word.’
The French still import English words, like ‘home’ and ‘sprint’ and the British still import French words like ‘en suite’ and ‘déjà vu’ and ‘genre’ and ‘auteur’ – where would English film criticism be without the word ‘noir’? – but the difference is still that the British do it without reflection and the French worry endlessly over it. I have on my shelves a thick dictionary of ‘Anglicismes’ published by Robert, a compendium of English expressions taken into the French language and given a new home there, everything from ‘Jamesbonderie’ to ‘Kick’. I cannot imagine any publisher in the English-speaking world even considering producing a compendium of French expressions in English.
British menus may once again be filling up with French expressions – jus, noisette, medaillons, coulis, etc, etc – while our ensuite bathrooms fill up with bidets, and our beds fill up with duvets, and it is because the British happily adapt to foreign terms by hardly ever noticing that they are foreign.
I noted, by the way, that ‘kick’ is listed among other ‘Anglicismes’. ‘Kick’, incidentally, does not mean ‘kick’. It should do. The French have no good word for ‘kick’. They say ‘donner a coup de pied a’ or ‘give a blow with the foot to’. How useless. What you need is a single powerful word for ‘kick’. How can any modern language not have a single word for ‘kick’? No wonder French never caught on as the world lingua franca. (What ‘le kick’ actually means is ‘kick-starter’. What a waste of a good word)
I feel it might be churlish in the circumstances to sign off with an insult to the French language, so I am leaving the last word to the French humorist Alphonse Allais. I thought I knew his writings well, but the other day for the first time I came across his admirably terse summation of England:
“Angleterre: une colonie normande qui a mal tourne.”
Which one might translate as:
“England – an old Norman colonial possession which went downhill very fast.”
Entente Cordiale 2003/4