From my portfolio

Faux Pas

Posted on 23 January 2016 by Barbara Beckwith (0)

My husband and I visit France often. We stay with French friend, read French newspapers, and in between visits, stay au courant via French TVs. We adopt, while in France, that smooth gait that the French develop from years of constant perusal by cafe-goers.

Still, we stumble, linguistically, each time we visit.

On a recent trip on bicycles in the Midi-Pyrennees, we pedaled up to a crossroads in the town of Lauzerte, just as a young boy on a bike approached the same intersection. Jon gave him a magnanimous wave to go first. Jon’s words, however, inadvertently conveyed the opposite message. Instead saying of “Vas y” (go ahead), Jon called out “Va t’en” – telling the boy to scram. The boy rushed off in tears.

Our pronunciation is part of the problem: Jon’s, at least, is so good that people assume he’s a native and that his word choice is deliberate. Each faux pas, each “tu” instead of “vous” to address a stranger, is taken as rudeness. On another bike trip, Jon stopped to buy salve to treat painful chafing, the result of too many hours on a too-narrow bike seat. Since his problem was of the diaper rash sort, he asked, with an impressively nasal final syllable, for “Desitin.” The pharmacist gave him a blank look. So Jon tried to explain that it was used for babies: “pour un bebe avec une probleme de la cul” which literally translated means, “for a baby’s problem with his ass.” The shocked pharmacist responded sharply: “Non, monsieur! On dit les fesses!” – the proper word for bottom. Jon had used language more appropriate to pornography. We hoped they assumed we’d just been reading Balzac.

If his authentic accent gets Jon into trouble, my use of esoteric words backfires, as well. At an elegant restaurant in a castle that was once the residence of the Marquis du Rochegude, I told the waiter that I’d like to check the bouquet of my husband’s wine before ordering my own. To do so, I used a verb – flairer – that I’d recently found in an advanced French vocabulary list. Unfortunately, that verb applies not to a connoisseur’s delicate sniff, but to the snort of a horse. The waiter reared back, then corrected me — sentir is the word I should have used. We left a large tip.

Most often I trip up over words that sound the same but aren’t: cognates. Recently, while being driven around by new acquaintances to see the churches of Mende, I tried to start a conversation about religion by asking the fashionably dressed woman next to me: “Etes vous religieuse?” Her eyebrows shot up, her mouth blew out a “bouf.” “Ah, but I am Jewish – how could I be?”

To my embarrassment (“croyante” was the word I should have used), I’d just asked her if she were a nun.

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