Saturday, 27 April 2013

Pardon my French (Part II)!

Pardon my French (Part II)

As promised, more French tit-bits or French-related phrases, courtesy of the wonderful 6th edition of the Brewer's Dictionary of Phrases and Fables, first published in 1870.  

Today is G to Z

The Most Noble Order of the Garter, which is the highest order of knighthood in Great Britain and the world, instituted by King Edward III about 1348 (then reconstituted in 1805 and 1831) and which only admits royalty amongst its members. We all know that the motto of the order is 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' (shame to him who thinks evil of it), but where does it come from? Well,  according to popular legend, Joan, Countess of Salisbury, accidentally slipped her garter at a court ball. It was picked up by the king who gallantly diverted the attention of the guests from the countess by slipping it around his own knee and saying as he did so: 'Honi soit qui mal y pense.'

In France there are still wedding receptions where the poor bride has to stand on a table, lift the hem of her wedding dress and push her garter up from the ankle to the top of her thigh as guests put money into a pot or a hat and shout encouragements (or salacious comments). I remember a wedding where the bride was in tears as the groom urged her to keep going so that they would have more money! What a way to start married life... 

The Guillotine, named after its inventor Joseph Ignace Guillotin, a French physician. It was introduced it in April 1792 to avoid 'unnecessary suffering'.

The Immortals or 'Les Immortels' are the forty members of the French Academy whose job is to write the dictionary of the French language and allocate various literary prizes. The Academy was first introduced by the Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, then reintroduced in 1816. It is an honour to be voted into the 'Academie Française' and once you are in, you cannot be dismissed. The 'Academiciens' meet every Thursday afternoon behind closed doors and only have one public session a year, in December.
A Lamourette Kiss (isn't that a lovely word?) is used to denote an insincere reconciliation between two opponents. From the Abbé Lamourette who in July 1792 urged the different factions of the Legislative Assembly to lay aside their differences and give the kiss of peace. It didn't work for very long.

A la Lanterne! Or Hang him from the lamp-post! A cry and custom introduced in Paris during the French Revolution. Many of Paris' street lamps were hung from iron brackets very suitable for that sinister purpose.

L'Homme au Masque de Fer (The Man in the Iron Mask). I have always been fascinated by the story, the legend of the mysterious individual held for over forty years as a State prisoner by Louis XIV at Pignerol and other prisons, and who ultimately died at La Bastille on November 19th 1703, with his identity still undisclosed. His name was given as 'Marchiali' when he was buried. No one knows to this day who he was. Some suggested that he was the King's twin brother, or even an older brother fathered by the Cardinal Mazarin or the Duke of Buckingham. Others that he was the King's own natural son by Madame de La Valière. It is now considered probable that he was the Count Girolamo Mattioli, Minister to the Duke of Mantua, who acted treacherously towards King Louis XIV by refusing to honour a treaty.

La Bibliothèque Mazarine was the first public library in Paris, and was founded thanks to the 40,000 books the Cardinal gave the city on his death in 1661.

Montjoie Saint Denis was the war-cry of the French, and Montjoie was the battle cry of French heralds at tournaments and the title of the French king of arms.

Parole. A verbal promise given by a soldier that he will not abuse his leave of absence or by a prisoner of war that he will not attempt to escape. I only put this one into the post so that I could link to this absolutely great (and just a little cheesy) song 'Parole' sung in the seventies by Dalida and the impossibly handsome Alain Delon. Of course, in the song, 'Parole' only means 'words' or 'empty promises'.


This is the Court of King Pétaud, where everyone is master! This French proverb means that there is no order or discipline. Le roi Pétaud was the title of the chief who was elected by the fraternity of the beggars in medieval France, and in whose court all were equal.

To do something with sang-froid is to remain cool and collected and how no sign of agitation or excitement.

Sans Culottes (without knee-breeches, therefore not from the upper classes or the aristocracy). This was the name given during the French Revolution to the extremists of the working classes. When the Revolutionary Calendar was created in 1792 (see my earlier post from July 2012), five days of holiday were added after the last month of the year, Fructidor (which would be in September), which were called the Sans Culottides .

Do you have any other French phrases or sayings? If you do, I would be delighted if you could leave a comment.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Pardon my French!

Here is a post for people who are fascinated by language and how it evolves, who wonder where these French words and phrases used in English come from, or for writers who need to put a bit of French into their story or dialogues for authenticity.

The following entries are courtesy of the wonderful 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable', 6th edition, published by William Clowes and Sons Ltd, London in 1962, which I recently came across in a sale of old library books, and which smells so musty I sneeze every time I open it!

Today, we are looking at A to F! All these phrases and words are absolutely not related but taken at random.

Ame damnée, a lost, cursed soul.

Amende honorable. An anglicised French phrase meaning a full and frank apology. In medieval France it was a degrading punishment inflicted on traitors, parricides and sacrilegious persons, who were forced to appear at court with a rope around their neck and stripped to their shirt, and made to beg the pardon of God, the King and the court.
Après moi le déluge. The thing to say when you don't care about what happens after your death. It is recorded that Madame de Pompadour (1721-64) who was King Louis XV's mistress, said 'Après nous le déluge' when remonstrated about the extravagance of the court's expenses.
Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard). Now who was he and why do every French children know and fear him, a little like the bogeyman? Giles de Retz, Marquis de Laval (no relation to me, fortunately!) is supposed to be the original Barbe Bleue. He lived at Machecoul in Brittany and was accused of murdering six of his seven wives. He was ultimately strangled and burned in 1440. Charles Perrault later wrote the tale of Bluebeard in his Comtes du Temps (1697).

Billet doux - a short letter, a message of love. Below is the painting 'Billet Doux' by Boucher 1754.

Bon mot - a clever, witty remark.

Bon Vivant. Someone who indulges in all good of the table. A stronger expression is Bon Viveur, which suggests the pursuit of other pleasures!

Brouhaha (I just love that word). A noisy or excited reaction or response. Late 19th century French word.
Lettres de Cachet (sealed letters). Under the old French regime, they were warrants sealed with the king's seal in which the name of the 'beneficiary' was often left blank. They were very often used to send political opponents to the Bastille or other prisons. They were finally abolished during the French revolution, in 1790.

Cheval de Bataille is someone's favourite subject.

Chevalier d'Industrie is someone who lives by his wits, a swindler, an adventurer. 
In his 1750   ' Letters to his Son, Chesterfield warned against them and urged 'Be cautiously upon your guard against the infinite number of fine-dressed and fine-spoken chevaliers d'industrie and aventuriers which swarm at Paris.' I didn't know that one.

Coup d'essai is a trial piece, a practice.
Coup de grâce is the finishing stroke, the stroke or mercy. When a criminal was tortured by the wheel or otherwise, the executioner gave him the 'coup de grâce' to put him out of his misery.

Coup de pied de l'âne. Literally, a kick from the ass's hoof, and figuratively a blow given to a vanquished or fallen man, a cowardly blow, or an insult given to someone who is in no position to retaliate. It is an allusion to 'The Sick Lion' Aesop, which goes like this:
A Lion had come to the end of his days and lay sick unto death at the mouth of his cave, gasping for breath. The animals, his subjects, came round him and drew nearer as he grew more and more helpless. When they saw him on the point of death they thought to themselves: “Now is the time to pay off old grudges.” So the Boar came up and drove at him with his tusks; then a Bull gored him with his horns; still the Lion lay helpless before them: so the Ass, feeling quite safe from danger, came up, and turning his tail to the Lion kicked up his heels into his face. “This is a double death,” growled the Lion.
Only cowards insult dying majesty.
Cri du coeur - a heartfelt plea.
Croquemitaine. A hobgoblin, an evil spirit or ugly monster used by adults to frighten children into good behaviour.  A French nursery rhyme went like this: 'Connaissez-vous Croquemitaine, Miton Miton Mitaine, il a deux yeux grands et perçants, une grosse bouche, de grande dents.'
En grande toilette, en grande tenue - dressed for a grand occasion.
En papillotes - in a state of undress, literally sill wearing curl-papers in your hair.
En passant - by the way
Faux-pas - a social blunder, causing embarrassment and loss of face.

And finally, these lovely 'French' phrases:
To take French leave. To leave without permission, without saying good bye to anyone, or to slip away unnoticed. In 18th century France it was a custom to leave an official event or a banquet without saying goodbye to the host. This phrase was first recorded after the Seven Years' War. There was a time when there was no love lost between France and England and this kind of backhanded compliment between the two countries were very common.
The French reverse the 'compliment' and say 'filer à l'anglaise' (to escape like an Englishman). And what about the 'French gout' (venereal disease), or a 'French letter' for a condom (we call it 'capote anglaise' which means 'English overcoat')?
I will be back soon with words and phrases from F to Z, but in the meantime if there are any expressions you particularly like and I have omitted here, please feel free to leave a comment.