My Favorite French Faux Pas
When I arrived in France in 1984 I had several years of French classes behind me, but anyone who thinks they can speak a language after high school French soon learns better. My solution? Whenever I didn’t know a word I tried whatever came to mind and hoped my French friends would figure out what I wanted to say and correct me. This usually worked fine… Usually.
One day, not long after I had arrived I went to the bank with my “French mother.” In France people take their dogs everywhere, and there was a woman in line with an adorable little puppy.
“How do you say baby dog?” I asked.
“Un chiot,” said my French mother.
I got on my hands and knees and noticed the puppy was a female. Smarty pants that I was I thought, better change the ending. “Viens là, petite chiotte!” I said loud enough for everyone in the bank to hear.
Raucous laughter. I had no idea why. When my poor French mother finally caught her breath she explained that I had said, “Come here little shit house!”
Sadly, that wasn’t the last of my fabulously funny faux pas in French. The best was yet to come.
After living in France for a few months I felt ready to read some books. I love to read and thought that would be a great way to build my vocabulary. A friend recommended the series, “La Lumière des Justes” by Henri Troyat. The series takes place in 19th Century Russia and concerns the adventures of a young woman named Sophie. At around this time my “French sister” asked me to join her at the local swimming pool. I wanted to ask her if I would need a bathing cap. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to say bathing cap so I tried one of my new vocabulary words. In his book Troyat describes the clothing worn by Sophie and her compatriots. He described a particular hat with a large brim popular in 1815. I thought this word would serve for bathing cap and, in any case, my French sister would certainly figure out what I wanted. The conversation went like this:
Me: As-tu une capote? (Do you have a capote — Translation to follow)
Her: Un quoi? (A what?)
Me: As-tu une capote?
Her: Chéryl, pourquoi tu veux une capote? (Cheryl, why do you want a capote?)
I’ll continue in English…
Me: Don’t you need one to go swimming in a public pool?
Her: Oooooohhh. Uproarious laughter. Runs out of the room, down three flights of stairs to the kitchen where she tells her mother who, once again, cannot catch her breath she’s laughing so hard. Finally my French sister returns and says, “Chéryl, tu veux un bonet de bain. Une capote, c’est un préservatif!”
Translation: Cheryl, you want a bathing cap. Une capote is a prophylactic!” At which she demonstrated using sign language.
Those are my two funniest faux pas, but there were many others. I was thinking of them when I wrote my story, “A Scoop of Henry” for “That’s Paris”. In my story the main character botches the word for “cremated.” It is exactly the kind of error I would have made, and still do, occasionally! It’s what makes it fun not only to learn another language, but also to help someone out who is learning. My French friends are always happy to correct me, but they are often unwilling to speak English in return. I wonder why?