Four years ago I started a column in Punch called Let’s Parler Franglais. It wasn’t meant to be a column, just a jokey language lesson called “Dans le Taxi” featuring a taxi-driver who spouted such French phrases as ‘Blimey, le traffic est dodgy…il y a un tailback a flaming Marble Arch… c’est une liberte diabolique… non, c’est murder…’
Somewhat to my surprise, it caught on. People kept coming up to me (they still do) saying this was exactly how they spoke French, and how clever I was to reproduce it. Worse still, they came up to me and talked Franglais to me: ‘Votre column est spot on, monsieur; continuez avec le bon work…’ Which was embarrassing for me, as I can’t reply in Franglais; I daren’t usually admit it, as it seems so un-English, but I actually find it easier to talk French. Not much, but a bit.
Now, four years later, I have written nearly two hundred of these weekly lessons, mixing French and English in the most carefree way, and they have been reprinted in three hardbacks, not to mention one Penguin paperback and another to come. I used to think that it was because people really do talk French this way when they land in Calais, or because schoolteachers were handing books the books to their pupils and saying ‘Get this lot translated into proper French.’ It’s only recently that I have discovered what I think is the truth: Franglais is the language that the English think the French ought to speak.
To put it another way: it’s because we can’t stand the French.
It should be obvious to everyone that we are more like the Germans than the French. The French are a Latin, Mediterranean race, much given to growing pointed moustaches, eating snails and stabbing their wives’ lovers. Racially we are more akin to the Germans, and share their taste for such things as beer-drinking and heavy cooking. We look like them. Well I’m sorry, but we do. We even talk more like them, as German and English come from the same stock: if a German says ‘Das ist ein Glas’, it sounds like ‘That is a glass’, but when a Frenchman says ‘Ca, c’est un verre…’
This explains why we find the Germans so boring.
Nobody is very interested in what reminds us of home. If you live in Manchester, you don’t go to Birmingham for your holidays. And the Germans seem boring to us because – with one or two vital differences, of course – they are so like us. But the French are incomprehensible, maddening, arrogant, different and, by an accident, only twenty miles away. We might not be able to stand them, but we are horribly fascinated by them, infuriated and attracted at the same time.
We are especially infuriated by the way they talk, which is also incomprehensible. If they live in Northern Europe, you’d think they have the decency to speak a northern European language, but no – they go to all the trouble of deriving their lingo from Latin, which you should only do if you live somewhere like Spain, Italy or Portugal.
The one comfort in all this is that the French are equally infuriated, and fascinated, by us, which explains why they have so many English words in their language. You’d think this made it easier. It doesn’t. Because the French, being as we all know cunning and underhand, often deliberately misuse good ordinary English words to confuse us.
If you see outside a French cinema a sign reading: “Un Western Terrible”, it doesn’t mean, A terrible Western. It means, A terrific Western. To make matters worse, the French word “terrifique” doesn’t mean terrific; it means terrifying.
I remember once wanting to ask a French girl if Paris had been bombed much during the War, and not knowing the French word for bombed, I made a shrewd guess. ‘Paris fut beaucoup bombs pendant la Guerre?’ She looked puzzled, as well she might. “Bombs” means bulging or swollen. ‘No’, she said, ‘there wasn’t much house-building during the War.’ I looked puzzled, as well I might, and a promising affair lapsed.
One sly habit of the French is to take an English word and use only the first bit, so that they know what they are talking about and we don’t. Le snack is not a snack, but a snack-bar. Le smoking is nothing to do with smoking; it’s short for smoking-jacket and means a DJ. And what do you think “un slow” is? It’s a foxtrot, short for slow-foxtrot. Ridiculous. No wonder we’ve given up the foxtrot.
But the worst habit of all among the French is so to arrange their language that when we try to speak it, we make a double-entendre (or doubles-ententes, as the damned French call them). If the French politely ask an English girl at mealtime if she wants second helpings, and she says bravely: Non, je suis pleine (No, I am full), the French will fall around helplessly. I am pregnant, she is saying. Don’t for heaven’s sake say that you are excited – je suis excite – because you are confessing to being sexually aroused.
Other traps they have arranged for us are the words fille (girl, but also prostitute), gorge (neck but also bust), baiser (kiss, make love to) and slip (not an underslip at all, but a pair of underpants or trunks). Even the word bouton is not exempt. I once stayed at a small French hotel in Brittany and the proprietress asked me, in a crowded bar, if my room was all right. Well, it was, except, that I couldn’t locate the light switch. Remembering proudly that le bouton was French for light switch, I said that I couldn’t find the bouton. The whole place erupted into laughter, but nobody would tell me why.
When I next found a dictionary, I discovered that the twentieth meaning of the word was a slang expression for a nipple. It could have been a bud, knob, cuff-link, collar-stud, or even a small mushroom, but no – they had to assume it was a nipple. Very droll, messieurs.
So cultivating Franglais is, for me, an act of revenge. It isn’t the first joke book written about French, nor the last, but the odd thing is that we never have joke books about any other language. We don’t feel irked by any other nation enough to bother.
That’s why the best part of writing Franglais, for me, is turning English phrases into French in the full knowledge that the French haven’t the faintest idea what we’re talking about. “Tirez l’autre il a des cloches”, you say to a Frenchman. Pull ze other what? he says. And why has eet bells on? “Dites on aux Marines”. “Soddez cela pour un aloutte”. “J’attrappe votre drift”, yes, Franglais is a very creative language, especially if the French don’t understand a word of it.
As I see it, it all helps to make up for being beaten at Hastings.
Of course, the French don’t call it Hastings.
They call it the battle of Senlac.