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‘Vive la difference!’ by K.J.S.Chatrath

Vive la difference!

Fontainbleu etc., France October 18, 2009 130 400 66

An iconic entrance to one of the metro stations in Paris. (Photo K.J.S.Chatrath)

France is one of the favorite destination of tourists from all over the world. I have long been an unabashed admirer of France and things French. I would definitely recommend my Fiftyplus friends to make a trip to France. I believe a return Delhi-Paris-Delhi air-ticket costs INR 39,500/- onwards at the moment.

However take notice of the ‘problems’ of French language. It is time to clear the confusion created by the French ‘Faux amis’ meaning false friends. No, it does not mean that France is not a true friend or that one should be cautious of friends. It would really be blasphemy even to suggest so with France and India enjoying such an excellent rapport.


“Faux-amis’ in fact refers to the expressions in French language which give a totally skewed meaning to those of us used to Anglo-Saxon phrases. It is a word or a phrase which does not mean what it appears to be meaning.


For example, the French have solved the notoriously ticklish universal problem of the ‘in-laws’ in an extremely sophisticated manner. But before tackling the in-laws, let us first examine the word notorious itself. When the French talk of ‘notoriete’ they are meaning fame and not bad reputation as notoriety in English means.


            Coming back to the ‘in-laws’, take the mother-in-law first. What a crude and obnoxious way of addressing a dear one! You are mother not because I perceive you as mother, but because the law forces me to consider you as one. The French have, in one wonderful masterstroke silenced all the mothers-in-law.


            Wife’s mother, and so also husband’s mother, is the ‘belle-mere’ or the beautiful mother. Similarly, a father-in law is a ‘beau-pere’ or the handsome father, a brother-in-law is the ‘beau-frere’ or the handsome brother and of course a sister-in-law is a ‘belle-soeur’ or the beautiful sister. This is the delicious French way of tackling even acquired relationships in a polished and sophisticated way.


            If you are looking for a library in France and enquire about its location, chances are that you would never find it as the word ‘librarie’ in French means, not a library but a book shop, the word for library being the ‘bibliotheque’.


            France is well known for its culinary excellence but here too the pitfalls for us are many. The famous French gastronomy has quite a few surprises in store for lesser mortals. Many of us have been initially shocked to find ‘crudite’ listed as one of the items in the menu-cards of classy French restaurants. “Crudite’ means crudeness and coarseness ibn French as it does in English. It is arelief to discover that it does not mean any crude dish but a bowl of salad.


          One other item in French restaurants which never fails to intrigue foreigners is the famous ‘hors d’oeuvres’. No, it has nothing to do with the horse. ‘Hors d’oeuvres’ really means a starter and is something like a coldmeat salad. Of course horse’s meat is considered a speciality and one often comes across a meatshop called the ‘Boucherie Chevaline’ selling only horse’s meat.


            A Frenchman talking of a ‘chou’ pronounced like the English word shoe, is not referring to footwear, but the lowly cabbage. Calling the beloved a ‘Chou-chou’ is also a term of endearment. Try calling your beloved a cabbage here in India and watch the fun.


            Chouette’, a somewhat similar sounding word in French, also confuses us when we hear it being used frequently to describe a wonderful person or thing even though the word really means an ‘owl’. What a way to praise someone! But then the French are different and, as someone said in a different context, ‘Vive La Difference’.


(This middle was first published in The Hindustan Times, New Delhi on August 17, 1995.)



Photos, text & copyright K.J.S.Chatrath

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4 Responses to “‘Vive la difference!’ by K.J.S.Chatrath”

  1. Madhukar says:

    Delicious way of referring to the Sister-in-law. Retains a bit of the naughty possibilities that exist in India.
    I also liked the term ‘hors de combat’ especially the way PG Wodehouse used it often in his stories to explain how one of the difficult adversaries in a fight would be so rendered due to some fortuitous move.

  2. chat says:

    Now…now…you are giving a naughty twist to an ‘innocent’ phrase…

  3. SUKHDEV BEDI says:

    Very interesting and educating.Visiting Europe this summer and looking forward visiting France.These small tips shall be useful.

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