Imports, Exports

French academics and politicians have worried for a long time about the amount of English words coming into their language. The imports have certainly been substantial. The great chansonneur Leo Ferre in his satirical song ‘La langue francaise’ notes barmaid, darling, travelling, best seller, planning, starter, after shaving, parking, one man show, cash, starlet, scope, very good, baby, jockey, steeple-chase, driver, sleeping car, milk bar, glass, call girl, Kleenex, lucky, sex appeal, black out, standing, self service and there are many, many more. Hostility to the influx has been intensified by endemic anti-Americanism, despite the fact that America was the first to come to France’s aid in the aftermath of its self-inflicted disaster, the Franco-Prussian War and rescued it in the two world wars.

There have been several reactions to this perceived linguistic imperialism. Wasn’t it Clemenceau who said that English was only French badly pronounced? Andrew Hussey, in his book ‘Paris, the Secret History’, relates how the eccentric Anglophobe Michel Fleury would spell ‘weekend’ as ‘ouikènde’. Chirac stormed out of an international meeting when a French negotiator dared to speak English instead of French. In 1994 a law was passed making it obligatory to use the French language in government publications, adverts and workplaces. French words had to be in some cases coined e.g. ‘jardinerie’ for garden centre, ‘ordinateur’ for computer and ‘numèrique’ for digital. The Minister of Culture who shepherded the bill through the Assemblèe was called Jacques Toubon; ‘Le Canard Enchainé’ promptly christened him Allgood.

English has happily adopted words and phrase from many other languages. We even have French phrases like double entendre which the French appear not to use themselves, and I have yet to meet a French person who understands the psychological term folie à deux. Some phrases like le mot juste and sauve qui peut are a bit old-fashioned, even pompous these days, but l’esprit d’escalier, the retort you think of coming down from the salon where you might have shone if you had been a bit more quick-witted, still serves well.

But English could well adopt some very useful words from modern French. In my own field, the visual arts, I find myself already doing so. My favourite is croûtes, a word for lousy paintings, the type of crude landscapes and cityscapes painted for tourists. There is also un travail alimentaire: the sort of job after art school that in my day was teaching, but for younger painters is more and more looking after old people. The late Claude Chabrol described one of his works as un film alimentaire. I suppose we might say ‘potboiler’ but that has become a bit démodé. The generic word for printing in French is tirage, particularly apt for relief printing, my chosen form. It expresses well the exciting moment when you peel off a print from the block with the final colour and see whether all your calculations have worked.

Others in different occupations may well find French words slipping into their vocabulary because they are somehow more suitable than the English available. I rather like the noun corrumpus. We would have to say corrupt businessmen, politicians etc or make the adjective act as a noun by prefacing it with the definite article. Contrary to what we were taught at school as an absolute rule, the French use corrumpus without an article. It would work well in English if we simply sounded the ‘s’.