On purchasing a copy of A Bit of French With Your Coffee and Croissants, the reader will soon appreciate owning their own personal copy. It is a coffee-table book of French words and expressions, interspersed with anecdotes, illustrations and photos. Enjoy.
To my mum and dad for finding the money
to send me on a school trip to Paris in 1966;
To my French teacher, Mrs Andrews,
who organised and led us on that trip; and
who subsequently arranged for me to stay with a French family;
To that French family in Brive and Argentat
for their life-long kindness and friendship; and
To Casterbridge Tours for enabling me to continue to travel
and to learn, like our customers, for so many years.
The prolonged period of lockdown has given me the time to write this book. It is intended as a coffee-table book; one that hopefully you might spill your coffee over, and thus spare yourself the prospect of tackling the section on French grammar and, indeed, the extensive lists of expressions and vocabulary in the appendices. The illustrations are by the artist, Christian Gastaldello, a good friend of mine, and fellow French explorer and Francophile. This is a book of French words interspersed with anecdotes. I take full responsibility for any mistakes you may discover. Please correct them yourself using a red-ink pen. Part 8 is devoted to George Voice, the oldest brother of my father, who was killed during the First World War at the age of 22. He is buried in the British Cemetery at Honnechy in Northern France. What is most important, as you probably realise, is that you purchase and possess your personal copy of this book.
France is a beautiful country. There is no dispute. England, and the rest of the UK, is just as beautiful. The French speak French. The English speak English. A lot of French and English people learn to speak each other’s language.
En voici deux exemples:
One summer, I was standing outside the 6 June 1944 D-Day Museum in Arromanches. It was a glorious day. There is a large parking in front of the museum. An attractive woman was trying to extract a ticket from the machine. She tried several times. Finally, she turned around and saw an official looking man. In a raised (not unpleasant) voice, she called to him in her best French:
“Monsieur! Est-ce que vous trraav eye yeh eeci?”
To which, after a moment’s hesitation, he replied:
“Madame, je porte cet uniforme tous les jours pour le plaisir. Comment puis-je vous aider? Ow may I elp you?”
She went weak at the knees. He took her coins, placed them in the slot, pressed a button and extracted a ticket. He escorted her back to her car, her husband and three kids, and wished her: “Bonne continuation de la journée, Madame”.
The granddaughter of the French family with whom I first stayed as a schoolboy, once asked me the following question in her best English:
“Do you ave a petatom?”
“A petatom?” I replied inquisitively.
I repeated the question to myself out loud.
“Do I have a petatom?” A petatom sounded like a word just shot from a machine gun at point blank range.
What she had asked me was: “Do you have A – Pet – At – Home?”
Stéphanie, the girl in question, is now a fully trained, practising vet and also has a husband, three children and several pets of her own. She could have asked me simply: “Do you have a dog or a cat?” But I suppose she did not want to exclude the possibility that I might have a goldfish (un poisson rouge), a mouse (une souris), a guinea pig (un cochon d’Inde), a hamster (un hamster), a gerbil (une gerbille), a ferret (un furet), a rabbit (un lapin) or perhaps a snake (un serpent).
In my home town there is actually a pet store called Pets at Home which I call Petsatom.
A pet is un animal de compagnie – literally a companion animal – which leads me to think that Stéphanie could have asked me: “Do you have a company animal?” In which case, I might have had visions of the company donkey being present at the Annual General Meeting. Strictly speaking, in veterinary parlance, a donkey (un âne) would be un animal domestique like a horse (un cheval), a cow (une vache), a sheep (un mouton) and a goat (une chèvre); as opposed to un animal sauvage, like un écureuil (squirrel), un blaireau (badger), une loutre (otter), un renard (fox), un castor (beaver), un singe (monkey), un gorille, une girafe, un tigre, un lion, un éléphant and un guépard (a cheetah) etc. See Appendix 5 for some French expressions with animals.
Exchange of Words Between Neighbours
When in France, my ears prick up if I should overhear someone speak about les Anglais, les Anglaises, les Anglo-Saxons, les Britanniques, l’Angleterre, la Grande-Bretagne or le Royaume-Uni.
Victor Hugo once said, “There is no animosity between our two nations; only a desire to surpass.”
If things are not going well or life is tough, as long as the French can point to a more unfavourable situation in England, then they can somehow reassure themselves that things could be a lot worse.
Paris will host the XXXIII Jeux Olympiques (les JO) in 2024. I have no doubt that they will be even more successful than the London Olympic Games of 2012. The Opening Ceremony will be spectacular, featuring the resurrection of Johnny Hallyday, and the rejuvenation and cloning of Brigitte Bardot; the pièce de la résistance will be a celebrity I00 metres race in which Gérard Depardieu will be given a two minute head-start. The Olympic Flame will be lit by a woman called Marianne, draped in the tricolore and singing the Marseillaise.
The French national football team is currently superior, having won two recent FIFA World Cups; there is not much to choose between our men’s or women’s rugby teams; the French are, and will always be, French champions of pétanque; and at least one Frenchman (Alain Robert) has been trained to climb tall buildings with his bare hands and no ropes. I don’t know of (m)any French players of cricket, darts or snooker. On food and drink, the French find it hard to believe that the English can make good quality wines and cheeses; they have pâté de foie gras and we have baked beans and marmite. On the economy, rising unemployment and inflation is manageable if it is thought to be rising faster in the UK, whether it is or it is not. And, of course, the French drive on the right side of the road. But so do we when we are in France.
Do not be alarmed if you should hear: “Je vais manger un onglet.” The French are not cannibals. Un onglet (literally a thimble) de boeuf is a cut or tranche de filet de boeuf (of beef steak), as are pavé, bavette, entrecôte, tournedos and chateaubriand/châteaubriant. You can simply order un bifteck or un steak (et) frites. Usually, comme la plupart des Anglais, you will be expected to ask for la cuisson to be (bien) bien cuit, unless you prefer it less well-done, then it is à point; or saignant or bleu, almost uncooked, in which case you might also like le steak tartare / filet américain.
You might hear someone say: “il fait un temps comme en Angleterre”, when it is pouring with rain, or the weather is just miserable. As opposed perhaps to: “il pleut des hallebardes”, “il pleut des cordes” or “il fait un après-midi de chien”. See Appendix 4 for some weather vocabulary.
Une assiette anglaise is a plate of assorted cold meats. La crème anglaise is custard. Une clé anglaise is a monkey wrench or adjustable spanner. Les cannes anglaises are crutches!
But worse are: “les Anglais sont débarqués” when for women it’s that time of the month/les règles; and filer à l’anglaise which is to leave without permission or without paying, usually at speed and without warning.
And, not least, with le Brexit, le variant anglais (of the coronavirus) and the initial problems with the supply of vaccines, our French friends have more ammunition than ever to accuse us of being traitors from la perfide Albion. “Que Dieu sauve la reine!”
Well, of course, we, les Anglais, can play French cricket, take French leave, and when we let slip a swear word (“Zut alors!” was all I was taught at school) we can say: “Excuse my French!” Les Français, those annoying French people, don’t you just love them and la belle France, if not necessarily both, and in that order.
La langue française is enriched with many English words; and the French do have a tendency, especially in the media, to use English words where there is a perfectly good French alternative. The world of computers, phones, business, science and sport are a rich source of English vocabulary, a lot of which emanates from America. There was a time when the French government and les immortels of the Académie française tried to defend the French language from such an invasion. Laws were even passed. Such tensions seem to have eased. And, in case you were wondering, hélas, eh bien oui, les immortels do not live forever but they do get constantly replenished.
Some words are not used as in English and their meaning is not always clear:
Le baby-foot is table football; les flippers are pin-ball machines; le ball-trap is clay-pigeon shooting; les peoples are celebrities; le lifting is a face-lift; le relooking is a make-over; le brushing is a blow-dry; le string is a thong and un smoking is a dinner jacket; un short is a pair of shorts; le pressing is the dry-cleaners or dry cleaning. Le zapping and the verb zapper mean to switch TV channels.
Le slam is live performance poetry. Les seniors are older people.
Other such words could not be clearer: le week-end, un sandwich, un coca cola (un coca cola light is a diet coke), du ketchup, les squatteurs, un parking (a car park or parking slot), le bulldozer, le ferry-boat, le bungalow, un camping (a camp site), un milkshake, un smoothie, le tennis, le football, le rugby, le chewing-gum…
I think le fair-play anglais may be a little less used at the moment.
In the current climate of coronavirus and lockdown, you may hear reference to “des clusters” of new positive Covid cases; and to “le click and collect” for purchases made on-line for collection at a nearby shop.
We do, of course, entertain as many French words as possible in the English language. They are not so frequently used; and, when we do use them, it is often tongue-in-cheek or in a light-hearted manner. Sometimes, le mot juste just happens to be a French one:
Femme fatale, bête noire,pièce de résistance, coup de grâce, fait accompli, faux pas, pied-à-terre, déjà vu, étiquette, rendez-vous, boudoir, tour de force, vernissage, entourage, boutique, concierge, agent provocateur, crime passionnel;
Cuisine, cordon-bleu, chef, gâteau, soufflé, bon appétit;
“Voilà! Oh là là! Très chic! Bon voyage! C’est la vie! N’est-ce pas?” can all be used when needing to add a touch of humour!
“Mange-tout Rodney, mange-tout!” (David Jason in Only Fools and Horses).
My mother told me that she once went to M&S to buy a skirt and the inside label (une étiquette) had “tour de hanches” (hip size) printed on it. She immediately put it back on the rail, declaring: “I am not wearing anything labelled tour de haunches!”
A German girl told me that she did not like the English kitchen; I realised she meant English cuisine. I told her that I liked bratwurst and sauerkraut. That was as far as it went.
“N’est-ce pas?” is very versatile, “n’est-ce pas?” It can be tagged on to any French and indeed any English sentence. However, its literal English translation will vary depending on the sentence it is attached to: “The English play cricket, isn’t it?”
“You lost, isn’t it?”. “You have done it, isn’t it?”. (don’t they? didn’t you? have n’t you?), “n’est-ce pas?”