The supremacy of English as a universal language is undisputed and largely credited to its voracious nicking of the best bits of other languages. So it’s that much more curious that in 2012, roughly 100 years since English took over from, arguably, French, as the world’s lingua franca that we still struggle to provide a concise answer to “have you no bananas?” while the French neatly dispatch the dilemma with a simple “si”.
The French “si” means, effectively, “yes, as in not what you just asked.” so “si” would mean yes, in fact I do have some bananas (and, depending on the tone employed, possibly some quite nice bananas and I’m a little offended that anything otherwise is being implied) while “oui” would mean that, sadly, no, we have no bananas today.
Now wouldn’t it be nice if English had a word like that? The fact is that there remain rich pickings within modern French (and, doubtless, lots of other languages, but I don’t speak any of them) that could smooth everyday English conversation.
Regardez! C’est le king!
As you reach that fluency sweet-spot in French wondrous things begin to happen: shopkeepers cease stalking your every word for a chance to show off their English, colleagues seek your expertise on americanisms, and you start having these marvelous linguistic epiphanies about our already countless French “borrow words”; a penchant is literally a leaning (pencher is to lean), a coupon is something you cut out and a coupé has already been cut. Despite its current popularity among the thrifty, corduroy was once the king’s threads (du roy) but denim came from Nimes (de Nimes).
English has been appropriating foreign words since its birth in the fifth century when tribesmen from Angles (now northern Germany and Denmark) crossed the North Sea to begin the long-cherished tradition of pushing around Celtic-speaking people. The word English itself is, in fact, Germanic. But it was ironically enough when the plucky little language faced its greatest threat that it acquired its single richest vein of new blood – French. In 1066 William the Conqueror, doing what he did best, conquered England and spread a thick layer of French nobility over the English peasant class. This necessitated an uneasy bilingualism which transformed pigs into pork (porc) as they reached the master’s table, oxen into beef (beouf), lamb into mutton (mouton), calf into veal (veau), and chicken, somehow, managed to remain chicken. Possibly our ancestral overlords didn’t care for poultry (poule).
French imports aren’t only about protecting us from the knowledge that dinner was a cuddly lamb earlier in the day but there does seem to be a trend toward to the euphemism – in French a tampon is just a buffer and a douche is a shower but I confess I’m particularly grateful that we adopted the French practice of defecating (which means to clean out) about 600 years ago in place of arse-gang (I can’t begin to surmise what that might have meant). Increased fluency has also made me aware that decadence is decaying and that a mortgage is, dishearteningly, a pledge unto death but decolletage, which is simply the point at which something separates from something else, is a poem in a single word.
For almost 900 years the linguistic trade deficit was overwhelmingly in favour of the French but two world wars, Hollywood and more recently and notably the internet have turned that completely around and English, particularly American English, is the new conqueror king. You won’t get through a conversation in French these days, especially a conversation in any way related to business, without the help of a couple of English words but this doesn’t mean the well has run dry. On the contrary, now that English has become self-reproducing the challenge to distinguish and enliven our everyday language is that much greater and I herein nominate some candidates from French that have so far eluded annexation.
Go home Jacques. You’re watered.
Ecoeurant is a word that you don’t miss at all until you know what it means, when it becomes indispensable. The closest English equivalent is probably “nauseating” but unqualified it rather misses the mark – something écoeurant is too rich or overpowering. Imagine taking a big bite off a brick of butter or that point when you realise that you’ve had exactly one too many spoons-full of chocolate icing. In this case I suggest importing the word unchanged into your daily vocabulary and if someone calls you on the apparent pretension of using a French word to describe a rum pudding just ask them to suggest an alternative. If you’re uncomfortable with that (and while I don’t agree I do understand) I propose the slightly less accurate but never-the-less expressive neologism “pukesque”.
L’appel du vide can be delivered with an accurate and direct translation – the call of the void – and it means just that – the inexplicable and seemingly universal urge, when confronted with a great chasm, to hurl yourself into it. That vertiginous feeling most people (and all sane people) get when peering over a balcony anything above the third floor (fourth floor in the USA and Canada) has often been attributed to a palpable conflict between your rational nature and some vestal instinct to fly into the void. If you like that explanation or merely find yourself wanting to encapsulate it so that you can pretend to have thought it up yourself, now you can.
Arroser just means to water, as in your house plants, and left alone it’s a bland and functional word. Its advantage in French is that it just means to apply liquid and doesn’t restrict you to a particular sort, so one can s’arroser which is to go drinking, or have a réunion bien-arrosé (a meeting during which probably not a lot was accomplished). Arroser will clearly resist direct injection into everyday English and “to water” is tasteless and colourless. Fortunately English already has a more generic word from which we can derive the same effusive metaphor to go out and get irrigated or have a well-irrigated lunch, just like the French.
Depanner is a concept well and widely accommodated in English by repair, rectify, fix, troubleshoot, help and sort out but not without losing a certain je ne sais quoi. Literally it means to fix that which needs fixing but it’s employed widely in French to get oneself out of an unspecified jam. A depanneur is an odd-job repairman in France and in Québec it’s a variety store where you can buy anything from a case of beer to a Philip’s head screwdriver at four o’clock in the morning. You can depanner a friend by loaning him money, watching her kids while she goes to a job interview, or just providing a bit of sound advice. Sadly, as fond as I am and as much as I rely on depanner I don’t have a lot of faith that it’s going to find its way into modern English any time soon; just about the last thing you want to do when asking for help is use a word nobody understands.
Ne me quitte pas
The above are my favourites, selected largely because they’re unobvious and expressive. I also think very highly of gueule, which translates to “snout” and which the French use to compound an insult: I did not care for the snout on that bloke (he struck me as untrustworthy). The French media tend to use charming expressions for our arrival into and departure from this world: mettre au monde is to put into the world or give birth and il nous a quitté (he has quit us) tells us that someone has died in a manner that implies quite sweetly that it’s very much our loss.
Vernacular French is more and more rapidly circumventing the still influential Acadamie Française (the official gatekeeper of the French language which says that as much as I’d like to I cannot googler and instead must execute a recherche internet) and it’s not just English that contributes. A close second is Arabic with, for example, kif-kif (roughly, six of one, a half-dozen of the other), niquer (look it up – NSFW), maboul (a little niqué in the head) and above all insha’Allah. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t speak Arabic who uses insha’Allah in regular conversation but I also don’t know any French people who don’t know that literally it means “God willing” but in practice means “maybe, probably not”.
Certainly French is no longer the wellspring of new English words and expressions that it once was but it lives in the way that modern languages do; it’s keeping itself fat and fertile and ready for the next invasion. May this meagre inventory of as-yet unborrowed words serve to recall some English-speakers to our roots and the possibilities therein. Insha’Allah.