Several years ago in Bordeaux, Younger Daughter was invited to a birthday party for one of her classmates. Unfortunately, she didn’t share this information with me until about an hour before the party was to start, which resulted in a mad dash to Le Disney Store to buy a last-minute (literally) gift. Finding a Disneyfied present and equally Disneyfied wrapping paper was no trouble, but we couldn’t find any tape with which to combine the two in a socially conventional way. The decision to ask the cashier where to find tape presented another problem: I couldn’t remember how to say “tape” in French.
As I was frantically thumbing through the pocket-sized English/French dictionary I kept in my bag for emergencies such as this, the cashier dispatched the customer ahead of us and asked, in perfect English, “Can I help you with a word?”
A Bordelaise speaking English to me! That was a first. After retrieving my lower jaw from the floor, I explained sheepishly that we didn’t know the word for “tape.”
“Scotch,” she said.
“Yes. Actually it’s an English word.”
“It’s a trademark,” I said. “It’s a brand of tape. But what’s the generic word for ‘tape’?”
“It’s scotch.” She thought a moment before adding helpfully, “And the verb is scotcher.”**
When English and French collide, as they did in this example, the resulting linguistic mishmash is called franglais. The Académie française, France’s authority on the correct use of its mother tongue, is fighting what appears to be a losing battle against the encroachment of English on the French language: Everywhere I turned in the fine city of Bordeaux, I ran into franglais.
The hair salons advertised le brushing (blow dry) and le relookage (my favourite franglais word, meaning “makeover.”) A parking lot was un parking, jogging was le footing, and swiper was what you did with your Visa at the credit card terminal. At H&M, you could buy un sweat (sweatshirt), un pull (pullover) and un jean (I’m sure you can figure this one out.)
In 2011, “social media”, “tweet”, and “crowdsourcing” (among others) were added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The Académie française pushes the pure French versions of these newly-minted words on its citizenry, with varying degrees of success. I saw the Académie-sanctioned courriel (email) in newspapers and magazines, for example, but mail or mél was used more often in conversations. (And of course, tweeter is what the French do on Twitter.)
Some of the older franglais words have been part of the French language for so long, their English origins have become hazy. Back when I was an au pair for two small French children, I had to play a lot of football (le football, or simply le foot) with the boy. When I told him that “foot” was the English word for the part of the body that kicked the ball, he looked at me for a long moment. Then he said, “That’s stupid,” and ran off to play.
I decided to keep quiet about le short.
* Franglais has a slightly different meaning in England, where it refers to “speaking French” by throwing French words into a sentence (or failing that, gallicizing English words). Hence the fetchez la vache of this post’s title, which comes from the classic movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” You can see the scene below.