The French Have a Word for It

 Growing up in California, it seemed logical to me to choose Spanish for my required language courses in high school and college.  I thought that it was far more likely I would visit Mexico than venture as far away as France (I grew up in a very rural area, and joining 4H was the height of excitement in those halcyon days).

I have always been an avid reader, but it was always a puzzle to me when I came across French words sprinkled around in an English novel.  Rather like a bit of spice, always seeming exotic and romantic, but a closed book to me.  I would try and guess what the words meant (this was before, you understand, you could just look it up on your whatever).  Some writers used quite a bit of French in their novels, one in particular being Dorothy Sayers.  In ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’, a Peter Wimsey story, there is an entire letter written in French, and no translation provided.  I assume that Dorothy expected everyone reading it would understand French, and if you didn’t, well, you were sadly lacking in a proper education!  Of course, Peter and his bride also tossed about a good deal of Latin, but that is another thing altogether.

I am now going to tell a joke on myself, which hopefully will not make me appear too provincial!  The first time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, destined to become one of my favorite books of all time, Jane Austen mentions a card game some of the characters are playing.  It was a French name, and highly intriguing to me.  What sort of game was it?  Something old-fashioned perhaps, like whist that no one plays anymore?  A French card game, I supposed.  I pondered over it for some time, and did so each time I read the book.  But I never bothered to look it up.  Then at long last, I started taking French classes at our local adult school to prepare for a trip there, and all became clear to me.  Vingt-et-un, in French, simply means ‘21’.

I think French is a beautiful language, just as charming in written form as in the spoken, and sometimes more so.  I found I enjoyed learning the language and subsequently, always took another class any time I was heading there.  But when I started writing ‘Disfigured’, which takes place in Paris in the late 1870s, French wasn’t just for fun anymore.  I had to take it seriously.  I really wanted there to be some French language used in the book, because as anyone who has seen the musical or even the movie knows, the characters all sound very English.  Words are spoken with a British accent.  I think this must be because it was first produced in England, and so all subsequent productions follow that tradition.  Both in the Phantom of the Opera stage productions and the movie, the most French you hear is the word, Monsieur. But with my book, I wanted to do what made sense.

I pulled out all my French dictionaries to help me with words, but I also relied heavily on internet-based translation sites.  I was also fortunate to have a friend who is fluent in French, so much so that she could teach it if she wished.  I sent her the manuscript and she went over it for me and made, oh, many corrections, vous comprenez!  I do think having some French words sprinkled through my book helps to ground the reader firmly in Paris.  For those who, like me, have but little knowledge of the language, I have added a glossary of French words and phrases used in the book on my website,  Check it out if you get stuck on a word.

I have found learning French to be really useful in life.  In a way, it simplified things for me.  I used to think ‘Le Cordon Bleu’ must be some very fancy name, and then I discovered it simply means ‘blue ribbon’.  It was like having a long-closed door opened to me.  Mind you, I still have a lot of difficulty pronouncing some words correctly, and if I listen to a French person speaking, they talk so fast I can understand but one word in ten.  Whether you use a dictionary or an app, I highly recommend taking the time to look up a French word when you come across it in a book.  I didn’t, but I wish that I had, for it would have enriched my appreciation of anything I was reading if I could understand what was being said.  Bon jour!