Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Close Just Ain't Good Enough

"Oh my god, I think I called the mayor at prostitute this morning!"

These were the first words out of my friend Tenley's mouth when she came to visit the other day. Tenley used to be my neighbor here in Aix but last fall she moved up to a tiny village in the Luberon. And I'm not kidding when I say tiny. Four hundred people and not even a bakery. How does one live without a bakery, I ask?

Sorry, I digress. And in the first paragraph, no less. It's just that I get so upset about that bakery business!

Anyway, as she drove down here to Aix, she was ruminating over the conversation she'd had with Madame mayor that morning and it dawned on her what she may have said. But she isn't sure. And neither am I.

I'm just NEVER sure. I'm not afraid to talk and not afraid to try.  Generally. But language screw-ups are part of daily life when you aren't a native speaker and are often just too funny. Certainly there are those times when you get the word completely wrong but usually it's words that are just...so...close.  Like the time I was on a date and the monsieur pointed out to me, kindly I thought, that there was a little fleck of something just under my nose. I had a little scab there and I said brightly, "Oh don't worrry, it's just a booger". I used the word crotte (crotte de nez is a booger; crotte de chien is dog poop) instead of croute (scab). I didn't realized my mistake until I saw the look on his face which was something between dismay and disgust. Crotte….croute…close, but not close enough.

This past weekend, a team of masseuses and I volunteered our services at a charity regatta in Marseille. Beforehand, I was trying to describe our project to a friend. I explained that we would be massaging teams of…well, this is where it got tricky because I wanted to say 'teams of sailors' and the word for sail is voile. Instead, I said  'teams of voleurs'. WRONG! We were not going to massage teams of thieves. I corrected myself and said "teams of violeurs". WRONG again! Nor did we have any plans to massage teams of rapists. I never did arrive at the word I needed because it apparently doesn't exist. The word sailor does not even have the word "sail" in it! We eventually got to the point but not without a lot of both confusion and hilarity. Close but no cigar.

My friend Doreen and I were laughing about this story and she recounted her latest horror. She is German and is but is also considered fluent in both French and English.  But fluency doesn't make her immune to these faux pas. She works for a distributor of grains, seeds and other health-foody sorts of things. She was speaking to a customer last week to tell him that his shipment would be late because they didn't have enough of the algae he needed in order to fill his order. She kindly assured him that it would only be a few days before the manufacturer could produce his full half-ton of fetuses and she would send them to him directly.  Fucus...fetus....I mean they're almost the same, aren't they?

But often, it's not a question of getting the words wrong, it's simply a question of pronunciation. There are some words that sound so similar that I can't hear the difference much less pronounce it. Like the words dessous (underneath) and dessus (on top of). Opposite meanings but they sound exactly the same to me. It has something to do with the horrible "u" sound that we don't have in English. I've been tutored on this. I'm supposed to make the long e sound at the same time I'm forming my mouth into a tight "o" while sticking out my lips. Hey, you try that! Then pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time.

Last year after going to see a movie, I announced to my friend that I had spent a half-an-hour in line just to get in. He looked at me with astonishment and asked me to repeat what I'd said. I said it again with authority. And then he began to laugh…and laugh….and I knew I'd done it again, whatever it was this time. My sentence was "j'ai passé un demi heure dans une queue". It seems to me this sentence is correct.  But apparently what I really said was the word cul, which in common language means ass, and not the donkey kind. Yes, I know, they look completely different when written but they sound exactly the same to me.  The second, however, involves the aforementioned convoluted mouth/lip formation. Which I obviously haven't yet mastered. This explains why the 3 elderly ladies at the end of the line that day did not respond well when I asked if they were the end of the ass.

The word queue can also mean tail, or dick. Cul can also mean porn or screwing, among other things. Both words, with all their meanings, are truly useful in conversation. But not in MY conversation. You will never, ever hear me mention my cat's tail and I now wait in a file d'attente.

We still don't know what Tenley actually said to the mayor but they're still talking so apparently either there was no insult, or people in her village are still talking to her just to see what she'll say next. My bets are on the latter.


P.S. I want to take this opportunity to wish my beautiful mother a very Happy Birthday. Je t'aime Maman. xo


  1. Terrific post. I enjoyed every mispronounced word.Here's Mine

  2. OMG, I'm choking with laughter.

    I can say the horrible "u" sound, but which one does it apply to, dessous or dessus? I think I automatically point an index finger up or down when saying or hearing the word(s). So "l" is silent in cul?

    I just hope the French figure out that we've made a faux pas and not an insult!

    1. Congratulations if you've got that sound down. It applies to dessus. And the "L" is silent. However, I would be the last person to whom you should ask these questions!

  3. Hello Delana.

    I just came back from France and bought a house in a small village without bakery.(sigh~) I have to travel 8 km to get some bread and everything else.
    Check it out Lassay Les Chateaux, Pays de la Loire.
    I will be back in France end of Sept to start the renovation.
    Hope you can come and visit me oneday.

    Keep in touch.

    Julie xx

  4. Errors are so easy to make, but they usually end up by both sides laughing. Well, hopefully anyway...

  5. Oh yes, I don't miss that moment of 'what the hell did I just say' when the French mums would pause and look at me funny. I had a great time butchering their language! The more boxed wine you drink, the better it gets.
    Enjoy it all because I sure am missing speaking French (when I got it right), and lovely Aix-en-Provence. x x x

  6. These mistakes keep me from even trying. I go to a French club every month to practice and I either end up not talking or speaking English for which I am reprimanded. I gotta get up the nerve and just do it . . . somehow

  7. Just don't get on the subject of 'a voile et vapeur' with your matelots...

  8. My biggest slip up is that I have a tendency to say 'cul' to much. I don't mean to, it's just a lot of words sounds just like it. Oops.

    1. Hilarious and I make the same sort of mistakes. Good think I learned to laugh at myself when I first moved abroad.


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