Although this column is fundamentally about the tremendous impact the French language has on English, I just can't resist the temptation au premier to pass on a few delightful Oscar-Wildelike epigrams pour les dames.
While I can't attribute these quotes, I felt that such entertaining lights should no longer be hidden under a bushel (whatever that is). Cherchez la femme!
"Whatever women must do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult." - Charlotte Whitton
"When women are depressed they either eat or go shopping. Men invade another country." - Elayne Boosler
"In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman." - Margaret Thatcher
"Behind every successful man is a surprised woman." - Maryon Pearson
Now, let us get on to the business of this column, which is French in English. Obviously over the centuries there's been a huge transplantation of French words and phrases into our language — that goes without saying (éßa va sans dire!). Have you ever realized how numerous they are? Some have been around so long we hardly think of them as French at all. Not surprisingly, many of these relate to food, such as entré©e, a la carte, hors d'oeuvres, and au jus. There are old very useful familiars like lingerie, rendezvous, and "RSVP" (Ré©pondez s'il vous plait — Answer if you please.).
It is really a little picky to insist upon proper spelling and pronunciation of things like hors d'oeuvres, but the phrase, for example, is useful because it has a meaning which the rough equivalent "appetizer" really does not have. Care about use is always appropriate. I saw on a menu the other day the phrase "with au jus." While its meaning is perfectly clear, "au" in this case really means "with", so the first "with" is not necessary, and may adversely affect the professor's appetite.
Here are but a few migratory words useful to know and to toss into the conversational pot from time to time.
Fiancé© or fiancé©e. How nice of the French it is to distinguish the genders (until you can't remember one of them).
Gaffe: What the politician recently made when he said "macaca."
Fait accompli: Somehow this seems to have more impact than "accomplished fact."
Coup d'é©tat: The sudden government takeover.
Au Bon Pain: "At the good bread." It is good, as is their other stuff.
Maitre d is a funny one. We seem to have forgotten that it is "maitre d'hotel."
Hors de combat: "out of the battle" (not, as some have suggested, camp followers.)
You probably know the following, but if not, you might want to look them up: vieux jeu, nom de plume, succé®s fou, plat du jour, coup de grace, au courant — and there are oh so many other interesting and useful ones. If you have a little French and are not afraid of scorn, you might memorize and trot out upon appropriate occasions the following epigrams.
SDLqDans la nuit, tous les chats sont gris." "En amour, il n'y pas les dé©buts qui sont charmants—c'est pour cela que l'on a envie de recommencer souvent." "Au pays des aveugles, le borgne est roi!" And a simpler, older, and perhaps on occasion more practical phrase, "Voulez vous coucher avec moi?"
Send an e-mail to jon3sticks@AOL.com for a translation if you're stuck, or for any other reason.
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Jonathan Wells is a Newburyport resident.