When bad French happens to good people

I’ve mentioned some of my French faux pas before. Those were the tip of the iceberg. Here are just a few of the blunders I’ve recently made:

– Everyone in Senegal had to register their phones with their service providers this month. So I dutifully went to the Orange store and told the receptionist what I was there for. She directed me outside and told me to turn left and look for… something. It was a word I didn’t recognize but whose closest approximation to one I do know is “la vache.” So, I stepped out the door and looked around rather skeptically for a cow in the parking lot. This being Senegal, I wasn’t sure whether it would take the form of a real live cow or just a picture of a cow on a sign. (Orange’s new mascot, perhaps?) Predictably, I found neither, but I did see a couple of guys sitting underneath one of those temporary wedding gazebo thingies. So I asked them where to go and they said, “Right here.” I responded, “But where is the cow?” They looked at me quizzically. Considering that the only other thing in the parking lot was the gazebo thingy, I pointed upward and asked, “What is this called?” They answered, “une bâche.” Riddle solved.

But Google Translate tells me that “une bâche” is a tarpaulin. While I might refer to the sheet laying on top of the thing we were standing under as a tarpaulin, I wouldn’t use that word to refer to the whole sideless-tent contraption. So that means I now know two words/phrases in French that I don’t have a word or phrase for in English.

– In the midst of an in-depth conversation that was going rather well, I told someone that something was “obvi” to me. The person I was speaking to was completely baffled. So I clarified in English, “Obvious.” He laughed and laughed and told me that obvi was “cute.” I have no idea how I came up with this nonsense word except that “obvs” is young person shorthand for “obvious” in English, so maybe my brain short-circuited and thought I could do the same in French? Or maybe I just fell back on my handy trick of saying English words I don’t know in a French accent and hoping for the best? (Half the time it works. And in fact, it would have been just fine had I gone with apparent, évident, claire, or visible instead. But I chose the one synonym that could not be Frenchified.)

– The night after a mass shooting in the States, dinner table conversation among my Senegalese hosts and their Senegalese guests turned almost immediately from sympathy to political commentary, as I silently smoldered with grief and increasing agitation. When I got up abruptly they asked me what I thought and I replied more emotionally than I would have liked, “Je ne veux pas parler. On est en grève.” But what I meant to say was, “On est en deuil.” The former means “on strike,” while the latter means, “in mourning.” I always mix up the two, probably because grève reminds me of grave and they both start with “en.” Anyway, I didn’t realize I had made a mistake until it was too late to correct it. At the time, I thought their shocked faces were a reaction to the force of my conviction, but it turns out it was more an illustration of their utter confusion.

– I am endlessly mixing up moulu, or ground, with mouillé, or wet. I brought back coffee beans from Ethiopia and kept asking where I could get them wet. On the other hand, after a rain storm I reported that I was completely ground. My misuse has verged on the perverse…

– As has my confounding of sale, sel and salé, or dirty, salt, and salty/savory, respectively. When I’m not shocking people with this particular set of mix-ups, I’m offending (and sometimes both). I’ve called myself salty and lovely-looking fresh-cooked meals dirty, and on more than one occasion I’ve told servers that I am in the mood for something dirty. I can only hope that this phrase doesn’t have the same nuance in French as it does in English.

– This one is not my own faux pas, but I was part of the audience for it. I was having dinner with an American woman and a Senegalese man and I can’t remember why but we were talking about various medical topics. The woman asked the man, “Quel type de singe as tu?” As in, what type of monkey do you have? She meant to ask him, “Quel type de sang as tu?” or, “What blood type do you have?” But as is often the case with faux pas, the native speaker couldn’t figure out what the foreign speaker could have possibly meant to say, and the foreign speaker couldn’t figure out what the problem was. And I was too busy laughing at both of them to help clear up the confusion.

More to come, I’m 100% sure…

[Photo: Brad]

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11 thoughts on “When bad French happens to good people

  1. Must be my terrible French communication skills at fault not yours. I was curious about your thoughts on the expression: Y’a pas de lézard. I stumbled across it in conversation after one of my many faux pas… and was flabbergasted at what a lizard had to do with anything.

  2. A parasitic sound … from what I can gather is an unwanted note or white noise from instruments, such as electronic keyboards. Something like sticky notes that continue to play, on an organ for example, long after the next note has been played… How this semantically translates to it all goes well without a truckload of sarcasm thrown in escapes me…

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