I love my Franglais. My French is okay… I can read a book and sustain a deep enough conversation. But it has been a long time since I’ve felt truly fluent. That was half-a-life ago, back when I was doing an intensive language programme in Paris for a few months. I started dreaming in French, sometimes thinking in it, too, and I could eventually, excitedly eavesdrop on every philosophical word of my fellow café-dwellers. But back in Australia, I soon rusted over, but in addition to the lack of practice, what also hindered was the daunting ideal of perfect grammar that had been instilled in me by my high school teachers and university professors; if I tried to speak to a French person, but couldn’t think of something to say that would be perfectly grammatically correct in written form, I would get all tongue-tied. In recent years, though, I’ve become much less hung-up about not speaking perfectly. Perhaps it’s a confidence-with-age thing, but I also wonder if it’s because the Parisians seem more relaxed, too, less likely to wince, as though in physical pain, if you mess up your subjunctive. They’re more willing to speak English, or at least meet me halfway. So if I throw in an English phrase or word, that is perfectly bon. In the same way, I love to sprinkle my English with the occasional Frenchism, to add a little sweetness, sometimes spice, to a sentence. These are some of mes favoris …
You know that feeling you get when you think of the perfect, oh-so-clever thing to say to someone … only after you’ve left the party? That’s esprit de l’escalier, literally: wit of the stairs. It makes me picture Parisian men of the salon days, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, smacking their curl-framed foreheads in frustration while swirling down their hostesses’ staircases.
It has the saucy about it, and sadly an air about it of 1980s comedy shows. You can only say it in an ironic sense these days.
Subtract an O and add a couple of accents and you’re a world away. This means, more or less, ‘goodness gracious,’ and must be accompanied by a raise of the brows, roll of the eyes and/or Gallic shrug of the shoulders.
Spoken by Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, to denote a dismal excuse for a man. ‘Quel’ can be added to any English noun really, in the sense of ‘What a.’ For example, Holly’s use of ‘Quel night.’ Or you could use the fully French expressions Quel dommage (what a shame), Quelle horreur (what a horrible thing), and Quelle Surprise (what a surprise), all of which are generally tinged with a sarcastic tone.
The cream of the cream. The best of the best. The upper crust (or the gratin, as the French say). It makes me think of that glorious blob on the top of full-cream organic milk, or the luscious layer of a freshly opened jar of La Mer skincare cream.
Literally: pretty ugly. Another version is belle laide: beautiful ugly. By all accounts, the French do not actually use this expression. So why do we English speakers say it in French? My theory is that it’s inspired by the French belief that any woman can be attractive, by virtue of good grooming and confidence in self. It could also be called a back-handed compliment, yes, but it comes from a good place.
My little cream puff. Not: my little cabbage, which chou also means, and which wouldn’t be at all as sweet.
I can happily zip up to the tip of the Eiffel Tower, and sigh over the Parisian rooftops as I sip a glass of champagne, without feeling the slightest soupcon of vertigo. Take me to the edge of the Pont des Arts, however, and I freak out. The difference, I think, is that you’re physically caged in on the Iron Lady, but only restrained by your sense of sanity. Still, I often experience a chilling panic that something will overcome me, and throw my usually-sensible self into the water; not that it worries me too much, as deep-down I know my cool head will prevail. The French have an expression for this phenomenon, which literally translates as: the call of the void. It’s an urge to do something crazy, which you know won’t actually ever happen.
It means ‘good liver’ but sounds so much more chic in French, a culture that has excelled at living well since the days of the Sun King (give or take a few revolutions, of course). Being a bon vivant à la française involves lots of supping from porcelain plates and sipping from delicately etched glasses, and anything else that won’t be too good for the other kind of liver.
‘Look for the woman.’ Coined by Romantic author Alexandre Dumas, père, it basically implies that whenever a guy behaves in an odd, out-of-character way, a woman is probably lingering somewhere in the background. The expression was all good and well in the days when women were invariably called femmes fatales and goodness knows what else. Now, when men are increasingly answerable for their own actions, it kind of seems a little passé, non? As quaint as it remains, in a pantaloon kind of way.