…let’s meet up with Hitler and go watch naked people fornicate!”

From what I hear, they encourage aspiring writers to always start with a line that draws the reader in. If you’ve read this far I guess it worked. But this time it’s no gimmick; it’s in fact the kind of sentence that an earnest French learner could easily say if he/she wasn’t careful. Explanation? Wow you are so sucked in now.

Just when it seems you’re finally taming the beast, the French language realizes it’s not the red cape but rather you that’s the target, and it’s game on again. As I dive further into the vocabulary of the land, I’m bumping into more and more gray areas and nuance. I occasionally have some near-misses with anything ranging from mild awkwardness to downright rudeness:

1)      Rehearsing a sentence in French at home with Charlotte, I threw the word collaboration into the mix for the first time ever. Words ending in “-tion” usually mean the same as in English, giving a bit of a free bonus upgrade to your vocab. But attention – or should I say attention – she quickly advised me to find an alternative, as the French use collaboration to describe the act of helping Nazis during their WWII occupation here. Kinda glad I blurted that one out in private rather than one of our Sunday visits to Grandpa.

2)      If you’re on your way to the museum’s new art display, you’re going to an exposition, not an exhibition. The latter tends to suggest something more tawdry, as in what we would call exhibitionism. Also not a super topic for Gramps.

3)      While this one is less volatile, it still manages to put you 180 degrees from where you wanted to be. If you call yourself a gourmet it means you enjoy the finer points of cuisine. If you go the other way by mistakenly claiming you’re a gourmand like I did, you’re calling yourself a ravenous glutton who can’t stop stuffing his face. While not the end of the world (and possibly true anyway), I’d rather not boost the ever-present cliché of Americans’ bad relationship with food.

4)      Speaking of the power of a letter or two, goût is a common word used all the time meaning flavor or taste. Add a cute harmless é to the beginning and it becomes the word for sewer.

5)      While watching a rerun of “The Nanny” (for study purposes I swear), I noticed the title was changed to Une Nounou d’enfer. I know nounou = nanny, de = from, and enfer = hell. So “A Nanny from Hell” seemed like a perfect translation; I mean with that voice of hers how could you not call it that. Turns out while all of my individual translations were spot on, in this context something d’enfer somehow means it’s amazing, even though it’s got the word “hell” making up 90% of it. Charlotte wasn’t able to explain why, it just is. They call the show “The Amazing Nanny”. Maybe because no one’s hearing her real voice over here.

6)      And finally the best, and possibly most dangerous for last. In the old days the verb baiser meant to kiss. If you were a gentleman you’d ask to baiser a woman’s hand while greeting her. Nowadays this wordage could get you into trouble, considering the modern meaning of baiser is to f**k. To complicate things further, if you give someone un baiser you’re giving a polite peck on the cheek to say hello. Forget that little un and you’re up an égout without a paddle. If I ever confuse these words in public, rest assured there’ll be an accompanying blog entry.

That’s all for now. This is the spot where I’d normally sum it all up with something clever or thoughtful, but with that fantastic opening from hell, who needs an ending?


    • I have to say for France’s sake they’re lucky to have received a braver group of Yanks than myself back in the day. My grandfather-in-law tells stories of faking medical records to avoid being shipped to Germany as a laborer. Crazy stuff.

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