A collection of small notebooks follow me around, hiding in handbags and storage boxes. They contain to-do lists, irresistible quotes and all the deep thoughts I cannot bear to let evaporate into the ether. So, like an old-fashioned Tumblr ?
There is no such thing as untranslatable words really, everything can be explained with more words. But you can tell a lot about a foreign culture by considering the concepts that are considered important enough to have their own words. It is the concision that is key, if you can express “the dappled sunlight falling through the trees” in a word, it means that there is a certain care for aesthetics within. (Guess which country that comes from, then click the link above to check your results.) Likewise, missing words mean that those ideas are less relevant to that culture.
As a foreigner discovering a new language, it may be that you just haven’t learned the word yet. It can make you homesick, hunting for your idiom, or give you a feeling of misplaced superiority. Or it can make you laugh. At the very least it makes for a good game of amateur psychologist. This then is the running list I have kept on the exaggerations and the lacunae in French.
Things that bug me about the French language;
- the poop: Bored, annoyed, or plain grumpy, there is a graphic poop-related swear word or verb construction to fit your mood. (No, I am not listing them.)
- the normal: A disclaimer for everything, the linguistic Gallic shrug, normalement means “Of course! As soon as possible! But if it takes six months to hook up your electricity, it’s not my fault, you have been warned!”
- the lack of anticipation: You can hurry to do something, you can really want to do it, but you cannot achieve that polite English state of “looking forward to”…
- the false economy: You don’t say cheap but simply pas cher, peu cher, not expensive, as if haute cuisine, haute couture and all that is costly is the gold standard. You can say économique but it’s just not as casually and easily used as pas cher.
- the appreciation: Miraculously, French boys seem to think they can get away with je t’apprecie as a poor cousin to love. Can you imagine ‘I do appreciate you, my dear,’ in English? Like a slap in the face from Mr Darcy.
- the cheese: Le fromage, the sacred French food, could never be considered an insult. Therefore to sneer at something as “cheesy” you say mielleux or fleur bleu.
What have I missed? What have I grossly misjudged with my outsider snootiness? (Snooty is an glorious word, how would you convey that in French?)