Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Résolutions -- NOT!!

Francophiles, here are some resolutions to NOT make (and some alternative ideas) in the nouvelle année:
  • DO NOT read Proust in the original French. Remember, you only have a year.
    • DO read my forthcoming book Flirting with French, out in September. You can be done in 2 days.
  • DO NOT watch the French movie Les herbes folles ("Wild Grass"). The movie is so depressing, you may not live to see 2015. 
    • Instead, DO watch a pétanque match on TV5Monde. This is not your uncle Vitos's bocce!
  • DO NOT ask an French emigrant to help you with your French. He or she came here to get away from France, and doesn't want to be reminded why he left
    • DO visit your local French Alliance for Francophile events
  • DO NOT copy the bizarre French Twelfth Night custom of hiding a ceramic baby Jesus in a cake, so that the unfortunate person who chokes on it can wear a paper crown and play "king" for the day
    • But DO bake some Madelaines, even if you aren't going to read Proust (And you are not going to read Proust!) And send them to me.
Bonne anneé, tout le monde!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Wordsmith Wednedsay: Joyeux Noël ! (And how the heck did the French get "Noël" out of "Christmas"?)

The French version of "Merry Christmas" is, as you might know,  Joyeux Noël. But where did Noël come from? This week, your intrepid French student digs deep under the snowdrifts to uncover the origins.

As with much of French, the word has its origin in Latin, and is a variant of nael, from the Latin Dies natalis (the birthday of Christ). Natalis is also the origin of the French "née," "nativity," and a host of other words relating to births and origins, but Noël made its way into Old French first as Nael.

One source claims that Noël (with or without the umlaut) first appears in English in the late 14th century, but other sources, such as the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, cite its first use as only 1811.

It first appearance in theatre is with the British actor Noel Coward (source: the top of my head).

Oh, and because this is French, and you must pay attention to such things, the noun Noël is masculine.  

Joyeux Noël, tout le mond, except for war-on-Christmas soldier Bill O'Reilly, to whom I want to wish ... Bonne fête !

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"Flirting with French" (you heard it here first)

Alors, nous avons un titre! Yes, the good folks at Algonquin Books have selected a title for my forthcoming memoir about trying to learn French (September 2014). Are you ready?

Flirting with French: How a Beautiful Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart.

All of which is true. Gee, I can't wait to read it!  I'd give you the inside scoop of how authors, agents, editors, publishers, and publicity staff come up with a title, but that would be like revealing the inner workings of the Mafia. And you know what happens to anyone foolish enough to do that. So this will have to remain a mystery. (Actually, it still is a mystery to me, and I was part of it). Let it suffice to say that the aforementioned title, having been agreed upon by all the key personnel at my publishing house, is not: too narrow in its appeal; too broad; too intellectual; too common; too long; too short; too already used; nor too who-the-hell-would-read-a-book-like-that?

A title is like the winner of Miss American pageant. The winner isn't always the prettiest one.

Next up:  the jacket. Feel free to post your own ideas. And stay tuned!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Secret to Perfect Pommes Frites

This edition of French Food Fight Friday features Frites. (Challenge to readers: come up with another sentence with that kind of alliteration!) By "frites,' of course, we mean pommes frites -- French fried potatoes.

Homemade pommes frites are almost always a disaster -- soggy, greasy potatoes that are either undercooked or burned -- but in fact you can make frites at home that are the equal of those you'd get in a Parisian brasserie. The secret is to start them in cold -- that's right, cold -- oil  (peanut oil works best). You'd think that putting potatoes in cold oil would result in greasy fries, but, in fact, tests conducted by Cook's Illustrated proved that potatoes started in cold oil absorb less oil than than dunked in hot. So these fries come out crisp, with very little oil.

The other essential techniques: use Idaho baking potatoes and soak them in several changes of water first. As for the dealing with the oil, I keep a small dutch oven filled with peanut oil in the back of my refrigerator. You can reuse it quite a few times, straining and/or topping off when necessary. Now, let's faire des frites!

Pommes Frites for Deux

2 Idaho baking potatoes
1 quart or so of peanut oil
2 tablespoons mayonnaise and a squirt of lemon juice for dipping
  1. Peel potatoes and slice into thin (about 1/4-inch) fries. A mandoline is great for this, if you have one.
  2. Soak in cold water for up to an hour, for but at least 20 minutes, changing the water once.
  3. Dry potatoes thoroughly, starting with a run through a salad spinner if you have one.
  4. Fill a tall saucepan or small dutch oven about 3/4 full with peanut oil.
  5. Add potatoes and turn to high heat. Do not stir the potatoes until the oil really gets going and the potatoes start to change color. This will take up to 15 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, squeeze a little lemon juice in the mayonnaise so that you can eat these in the French style.
  7. Occasionally stir as potatoes continue to cook. Watch carefully, as they go from pale to brown in no time at all. Remove to paper towels with slotted spoon and add salt when they are golden brown. Eat immediately.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Guest Post: French Booby Traps

I'm thrilled to have a guest post for this week's Wednesday Wordsmith from Laura Ellis, a writer for the website Listen and LearnOn y va!

Every language has its traps. It's like they've been put there just to fool the poor unsuspecting learner, who will come along, feeling confident about their new-found language skills, and innocently fall into one of them with hilarious results (for everyone watching, that is). French is no different and is full of tricky grammar, homophones and false friends to put you off your stride and completely humiliate you in front of your peers, hosts or love interest. It would be just great if upon making a mistake in a new language native speakers were sympathetic enough to keep a straight face and gently correct you, but that is very rarely the case in my experience. You can't avoid mistakes completely and some of them will inevitably be funny. But if, like me, you struggle to laugh along when you get it wrong, you may want to watch out for these cringe-worthy slip-ups.

Food Baby
Be careful when announcing that you've had enough to eat. The French for 'full' is plein, but tell everyone je suis plein at the dinner table and you'll leave everyone shocked, confused or rolling around with laughter. Je suis plein is a confession that you're pregnant, j'ai plein is the correct form to let everyone know that you've lovingly formed a food baby, not an actual baby. Be particularly careful in the presence of your mother-in-law.

Hot and Cold
The je suis/j'ai trap can get you mixed up with other phrases too. J'ai froid is an admittance that you're feeling chilly, je suis froid suggests that you're cold and unemotional. If someone asks you if you're feeling okay, j'ai froid will get you a coat, je suis froid will get you a friend waiting for your inevitable breakdown. Even worse is choosing the wrong moment to announce je suis chaud. That's fine if you're in your favourite negligee and your partner's just walked through the door, but if you'd like someone to put the air-conditioning on, it's best to stick with j'ai chaud, rather than admit that you're feeling… hot. These same rules apply in German too, so perhaps it's just us hapless English speakers who are getting it wrong.

Pucker Up
Once you've realised that je suis chaud is going to get you into a pack of trouble, it's hard not to spot other ways you might be a little overly affectionate. French is the language of love after all, so it's not surprising that they're trying to trick you into confessing your attraction to your friends or even complete strangers. Baiser is the big one to watch out for – if you want to use kiss as a verb embrasser is the word to use, or you might want to donner un baiser. Avoid using baiser as a verb, in particular when you're kissing your sibling, friend or sweet old grandmother, because it means not to kiss, but to make love. And that party you're excited about? Don't go around telling everyone ça m'excite, because they'll think tu est chaud.

Faux Amis
Naturally, it would be far too easy for French learners if there were no completely innocent, everyday words that sounded alarmingly similar to words that shouldn't be uttered in polite company. Daffy of Looney Tunes fame, for example, is a canard, while that guy who just cut in front of you so he could get home one second faster is a known by something rather similar, but significantly harsher. And while you're busy trying to avoid ordering jerk a l'orange, take care that you're browsing the menu for the poisson course and not the poison course. One of them will give you a healthy dose of omega3, while the other will get you a less than healthy trip to l'hȏpital. Unless of course you have a fish allergy, in which case poisson and poison is the same thing.

  Laura Ellis is currently a writer for Listen and Learn.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thankgiving Special: What gender is that turkey in your oven?

Learning the genders of nouns (objects) in French has been driving me fou. There are a few rules (nouns that end in -age and  -eau are usually masculine, those in -ion usually feminine) but when it comes to the gender of animals, it's a downright zoo.

Take, for example a chicken. Lays eggs, so much be ...wrong-o! It's a male - un poulet. Thank goodness a cock, at least (that is, a rooster) is a male -- un coq. But when it comes to most animals, you need to hazard a peek under the tail to figure it out. A cat is either un chat or une chatte; a dog un chien or une chienne -- wait a second, do I detect a pattern here? -- to derive the feminine, just repeat the final consonant and add an e? That's not so hard.

Not so fast, chérie! In the spirit of the season, consider the turkey. A male turkey is un dindon. But a female turkey is not une dindonne (nice try), but une dinde. By the time it ends up stuffed and in your oven, your guess is as good as mine. Just enjoy it.

Happy Thanksgiving, tout le monde!

Friday, November 22, 2013

In Praise of Jacqueline Kennedy

As the nation observes the remembrance of this tragic day 50 years ago, I'd like to add my own thoughts about Jacqueline Kennedy, who brought French style, flair, and, of course, French food, to the White House. Julia Child is often credited with bringing French cuisine to the American public -- and it's true, she deserves a tremendous amount of credit -- but her Mastering the Art of French Cooking was in fact published several months after another groundbreaking event in Franco-American relations: Jackie Kennedy's naming of French chef René Verdon to the post of White House Chef.

As the New York Times wrote in Verdon's obituary in 2011,
His first official meal at the White House, a lunch for Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Britain and 16 guests on April 5, 1961, set the new tone: trout in Chablis and sauce Vincent, beef filet au jus and artichoke bottoms Beaucaire, and a dessert he dubbed désir d’avril, or “April Desire,” a meringue shell filled with raspberries and chocolate.
The message was clear. No longer would a meal at the White House be a painful duty.
A White House dinner menu of the time included something called "Potatoes Nancy." I've been unable to find a recipe for "Pommes Nancy."  If anyone out there has one, please let me know.

As for Monsieur Verdon -- the Texan who moved into the White House had a distinct preference for frozen vegetables, burgers, ribs, and baked beans. Verdon resigned in 1965 and opened his own  restaurant.

Jacqueline Kennedy moved to New York and, let us not forget, just about single-handedly saved the majestic Grand Central Terminal from the wrecking ball, a sliver of a silver lining to the dark of cloud of November 22, 1963.

Merci, Madame Kennedy.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesday: Dese, dem, and dose damn genders!

Coming up with the correct gender of nouns can drive any student of French fou. Gender even infiltrates a common phrase like “this one,” which is celui-ci if the thing you’re referring to is masculine, say, a woman’s breast. If it’s a beard, which is obviously feminine, it’s celle-ci. Of course, breasts usually come in pairs, so you’d better know that “those” plural masculine breasts are ceux-là, while plural feminine beards are celles-là. This French version of “dem and dose” has at least eight variations to be memorized. Here's a chart for the masochistic (the rest of just point and grunt):

English                  Masculine                  Feminine
this                           celui                            celle
these                        ceux                            celles

that                          celui-ci                        celle-ci
those                       ceux-là                        celles-là

In my next life I may study Latin instead -- it's easier.

Friday, November 15, 2013

French Food Fight Friday: "Quality partridge should have the fresh smell of an infant’s diaper."

This week on French Food Fight Friday, I'm actually ready to start a fight: against the US government, which, for the most part, does not allow the serving of wild game in restaurants. France, by contrast (vive la différence!) celebrates the preparation and consumption of wild game this time of year. Restaurants have relationships with hunters, who bring their freshly-caught game to the back door, slung over their shoulder, still warm and furry. But in our antiseptic, overly-regulated culture, everything we consume has to be slaughtered and wrapped in plastic before we are allowed to eat it.

Among the rules French hunters abide by:
  • "Female birds are to be venerated, not killed"
  • "Quality partridge should have the fresh smell of an infant’s diaper" (a clean diaper, that is)

Read the full story on hunters and French diners, and sigh with regret.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesday: Why the French don't hug

In last week's installment we explored the surprising fact that the French don't have a word for "French kiss." Believe it or not, we only scratched the surface of affection with that post. This week we delve into this kissing business a little more, um, deeply.

When I had a date to meet my French penpal in France last year I agonized beforehand whether to shake hands or do the air kiss on each cheek. One option I didn't have to worry about was a hug. The French don't socially hug, I've noticed. They just don't. This may be because they don't really have a word for it. They used to — embrasser — but somewhere along the way the terms of endearment all got ratcheted up one level and embrasser now means “to kiss,” a real kiss, on the lips.

The cheek-to-cheek air kiss I ended up performing (flawlessly, as far as I could tell) is called a bise. Essentially you touch cheeks and make a smacking sound with your lips as if you were actually kissing, which in most cases you are not, then repeat on the other cheek. And it doesn’t always end there. The French, it seems, are so fond of the bise that they sometimes go for three or even four kisses, depending on the region. In general they kiss twice in the north, and anywhere from three to a tongue down your throat in the south.

Well, back to the ratcheting up of terms of affection: if the hug (embrasser) got promoted to a kiss, what happened to the word for "to kiss"? The verb baiser got promoted to the vulgarity, "to f**k." Except -- attention, mes amis! -- baiser can still mean "to kiss," but the kind of kiss a mother might plant on her child's forehead. In other words, kissing the pope's ring and screwing your girlfriend (or boyfriend) use the same verb -- it's all in the context!

So be careful next time you meet the pope. Quelle langue!!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesday: What do the French call a French kiss?

This may come as a surprise (it did to me), but the French don't have a term for "French Kiss." I think we can interpret this to mean that they don't think it's anything special to exchange tongues with your partner — it's just part of kissing — and indeed American servicemen returning from liberating France after World War II reported that "those French women really know how to kiss!" And depictions of tongue-kissing were banned from American films for quite some time.

Well, the 2014 Petit Robert dictionary, perhaps concerned about the impact the lack of a term for French kissing might be having on the already-low French birth rate, has recently proposed one — a very odd concept for Americans, who kind of just wait for a new word to arrive naturally — coming up with the verb galocher, which is derived from the word for an ice-skating boot, the idea apparently being that a French kiss is kind of sliding around on the ice, but with your lips and tongue.

You can love it or hate it, but when it comes to new words, it's the storied Académie française — the arbiter of the French that's been around since 1635 — that has the final say on whether galocher will be accepted as official French or fall through the ice.  Stay tuned: The really — um — juicy part about the French word for kiss comes next week!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Never to old to learn a language

I was heartened to read today that 71-year-old soon-to-be-ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, when asked what he planned to do in retirement, said he was determined to become fluent in Spanish. I worried that I was too old to learn French, when I started studying at age 57 -- a mere tyke by comparison. Of course, Bloomie's got a head start; he's already semi-decent in Spanish, although the press likes to poke fun at him.When I tackled French I was saying things to taxi drivers (I love to talk to French taxi drivers) like, "Do you think it will cry today or make sunshine?" (Hmm. Come to think of it, I still...never mind).

My book about learning French in middle-age will be coming out in September 2014. While you're waiting, learn a language. Or at least start. Read some of the articles on this site to see the techniques that I used. To get a note when the book is published (and absolutely nothing else from me, ever!) send an email to 

Au revoir/arrivederci/adiós.  (And go, Mike!)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesdays: Garçon! There's a fly in ma soupe

I was astounded to see that the little French phrase card that came with Fluenz French (and we'll dissect -- or eviscerate -- that little piece of learning software in a future post) gave the following translation for signaling a waiter: Garçon! Are you kidding me? No one's successfully gotten served by calling a waiter Garçon! since Edith Piaf. You might as well call LeBron James "boy," which happens to be, of course, the literal translation of garçon.

The custom of calling waiters "boy" dates from an earlier era, when France had more of a class system. And even then, you really weren't calling him "boy," you were using a shorthand notation for the French term for waiter, which is garçon de café. Nowadays it's considered rude, if not downright insulting, especially if your garçon is a fille or over the age of 12.

So what do you call a waiter. Monsieur? I've seen it done, but that's not quite right either, because it's putting you and the person serving you on the same social stratum (France still has a class system). The correct answer is, you signal the attention of a waiter in France more or less the same way you do in the States. If and when he wanders by, you raise your hand, smile, and plead, S’il vous plaît? 

If that fails, then try monsieur/mademoiselle/madame. If you're still being ignored, say in a loud voice for everyone to hear, Garçon!! That's sure to get his attention.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

France loves (and protects) its small bookstores

Trois cheers for the French, who have introduced a bill to protect their small, indie bookstores. The new law, which has already passed the lower house of parliament, would limit discounts -- including online (read: "Amazon") to 5%. Imagine if a bill like that were introduced in the US: there would be a hue and cry like you've never heard. Followed by a zillion lawsuits. Yet in countries like France and Italy, you still have the joy, which we've lost, of walking down any street and being able to wander into a small bookstore. In our quest for the lowest price on everything, we've not only given up American manufacturing, but joys like this. C'est dommage.

Full story at NPR.

Friday, October 25, 2013

French Food Fight Friday: Potatoes with loose morals and great body

Welcome to French Food Fight Friday (aka 4F), a weekly feature of alliteration and thoughts about food-related French and French-related food.

In this installment we explore the only food I know of that is named after... a prostitute! No fooling. According to the story,  this delectable dish was named after a delectable dish - a 19th century courtesan named Anna Deslions whose -- ahem -- office was located at the Café Anglais in Paris, one of the top restaurants in Paris. The chef, either out of his unrequited love for the beautiful Anna or in gratitude for the business she brought to his restaurant, created this recipe in her honor.

This is perhaps my favorite potato dish, the simplicity of it really bringing out the taste of the potatoes. It's crazy easy to make, yet, sadly, is rarely found in this country. When done properly the interior just melts in your mouth, while the outside potatoes remain crunchy and buttery. It's important to use Yukon potatoes to get that perfect texture and taste. And also not to count calories.

Before we get to the recipe, take a moment to savor the fact that the French word for potatoes is pommes de terre -- apples of the earth. Delightful, isn't it?

Pommes Anna 

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Clarify the butter: Melt it in really small saucepan until it foams. Remove from heat until foam subsides, then skim off and discard white solids that have floated to the top
  3. Slice 4 potatoes very thinly (use a mandolin or V-slicer if you can), about 1/8 inch
  4. Spray a nonstick 8- to 9-inch skillet with vegetable oil, then coat with a little of the clarified butter (the smaller the pan, the higher your stack of potatoes will be, and the higher the better)
  5. Cover bottom of skillet with overlapping layer of potatoes. Season well and drizzle a little of the butter over it
  6. Continue to add layers, drizzling each with butter, until you've used all the potatoes. Top with any remaining butter
  7. Cover pan tightly with foil and simmer over high heat for 90 seconds
  8. Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes, removing foil after 30.
  9. Put a plate or platter on top and flip, like an upside down cake. The top (formerly the bottom) should be golden brown and crispy. Allow to sit for several minutes before serving.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesday: Is that a cat in your throat, or are you just happy to see me?

Welcome to Wordsmith Wednesday (or mercredi manieur de mots), my new feature that, every Wednesday, takes a look at a strange, fun, or just plain weird aspect of the French language that your Rosetta Stone course might have (almost certainly has) omitted.

In today's feature we compare how a few French and English idioms for the same thing differ in one very feline way. For example:

  • While we say "tit for tat" 
    • The French say a bon chat, bon rat: -- to a good cat, a good rat
  • We have "a frog in the throat"
    • Your French friend avoir un chat dans la gorge -- has a cat in the throat
  • We "call a spade a spade"
    • The French appeler un chat un chat  -- call a cat a cat

Hmm. Is it just me, or is there a pattern here? What is it with the French and cats, anyway?  Oh, and by the way, while we're on the subject of cats, what we vulgarly call "pussy" the French call -- you guessed it -- "cat," although this time they make it a feminine cat -- chatte.

We'll explore the bizarre French gendering of animals in a future post --- stay tuned!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Vous voulez egg roll avec ça?

Need to practice some French with native speakers and don't have a passport? Take a (long) drive up to Madawaska, Maine, which holds the distinction of  being the Frenchiest town in America, a place where, according to the 2000 US Census, 83 percent of its residents spoke French as their first language (!). These are the descendents of the Acadians, who came from the west coast of France in the 1600s, were chased out of Nova Scotia by the British  before the revolution, and scattered among the coastal US colonies (some ended up in Louisiana, where they became Cajuns), and finally returned after the war to the St John River valley.

I was recently up there, and the French they speak, I was told, is closer to the French of 400 years ago than Parisian French is today. It certainly is weird. I wasn't sure it was even French till I heard a "mais, oui!" But because of their proximity to Canada they also can speak "formal" French, so I had the unique experience of ordering dinner in French in a Chinese restaurant in Maine! (And the food wasn't bad.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Coucou, tu as pris le pain?

In another sad sign that French culture is being dragged down to American levels, the French bakers and millers lobby has started a national campaign modeled on our "Got Milk?" program to reverse the declining consumption of bread in France. The slogan, Coucou, tu as pris le pain? means “Hey there, have you picked up the bread?” and their hope, in the words of a spokesman, is that "when you see the word coucou, we want it to be a reflex for consumers to say to themselves, ‘Ah, I have to buy bread today.'"

Really? My discussion on my baking blog, All Things Bread, discusses the bread aspects of this odd campaign, but here we want to explore thisu outrageous attempt to appropriate the word coucou.

I first ran across this word when my French pen pal greeted me with Coucou! in one of her e-mails, sending me running to my dictionary. Where I learned that coucou meant "cuckoo"! Yes, as in the bird. Or the clock. But it's also become a casual greeting among young people (sort of "hey there!") and you have to admit, it's really cute, even in English: "Cuckoo! What's happening?"

The bread lobby now wants this word to mean, or at least invoke, "bread." To which the only possible response is, of course: What are they, cuckoo?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bastille day a la Brooklyn

Went to the French province of Brooklyn, NY yesterday to celebrate Bastille Day, watch some pétanque (above) and practice some French. Although there seemed to be hardly any French people there - I guess the 75,000 French immigrants living in the New York area were elsewhere. I have to say this: it's the only street fair I've been to in New York where you could walk around with a drink in your hand. Vive la France!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

La Greve!

Today's word is grève -- strike -- as another protest snarls the French transportation system -- in the middle of summer, no less! This time, it's the air traffic controllers who've launched a 3-day strike to protest integration with the EU flight traffic control system, cancelling every flight in France.

French workers don't strike the way US workers do, staying out till they get a wage increase or some other concessions. No, Frenchmen strike for a predetermined period, often as little as a day, just as a protest.

You'd think this strategy of pissing everyone off would be counterproductive, and the public would demand that the government not give in to this blackmail. But, remember, this is France, so people are more likely to say, "This is a pain, but thanks for bringing this threat to French sovereignty to make attention," and they back the workers. I've had to scramble in two of my past 3 trips to France because of train strikes - the last time I was lucky to make it out of the country.

Of course, having made it out, I can't wait to get back in. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mon Dieu! "The New Yorker" misses French idiom!

Guess The New Yorker isn't reading this blog. In their February 25, a feature about the French actor Gérard Depardieu ridicules him for allegedly describing a bottle of rum he received from Castro as "God in velvet underwear." Most likely, Depardieu was simply using the common (if odd) French idiom, C’est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours -- it's baby Jesus in velvet shorts --  most often employed to describe, say, a smooth wine. As I explained in a posting a while back, an earlier generation of Americans might have exclaimed, “It’s the cat’s pajamas!”

Please, New Yorker, Depardieu deserves to be ridiculed for many things (not least of which is drunkenly peeing in the aisle of an Air France plane), but let's not kill him for employing a colorful idiom. Your provincialism is showing.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Côté voiture

Anne and I were having dinner in a French restaurant last night, when I noticed a specialty cocktail on the menu that might appeal to her. "Which one?" she asked.

"The côté voiture."

"What does that mean?"

"Well, 'voiture' is car. Côté...Damn, I know that word. Aghh! What's that word? 'Something' car.."

Before I could come up with it, Anne started reading the ingredients..."Cognac, Grand Marnier, sugar...It's a sidecar!"

Of course: à côté means "next to." A year of studying French, and I come up empty, but my wife, who had one semester 40 years ago (but knows her mixology), comes up with the term! Needless to say, somewhat shaken and in need of a drink, I ordered one.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

France more popular than Congress

In a stunning reversal of fortune, a poll just released by Public Policy Polling reveals that American hold a higher view of France than of the U.S. Congress! To be be fair, Americans also hold a higher view of cockroaches and traffic jams (of which France has plenty, at least of the latter), but this nevertheless represents a huge step forward for my beloved France.

But seriously, why is France so unpopular in the U.S.? It is because their food is better than ours? Their wine a fraction of the cost? Their health-care system easy-to-use, convenient, and ...FREE? Or that their government actually works? I often hear that the French are rude -- that's not been my experience, except for one case when I deserved it, and even then the indirect cause of my thoughtlessness in holding up a busy line was that the Frenchman at the train ticket widow was being so unfailingly helpful and patient.

Wait, I know...it's because they have no shower curtains on their bathtubs (because you're supposed to shower while sitting with a handheld showerhead which you aim very carefully). I'll have more to say about French showers in my forthcoming book about learning French, but in the meantime, I'm gratified to see that France's popularity is on the upswing. Oh, sorry, I just checked the numbers, and it's actually more the case that Congress's popularity is approaching that of malaria. Regardless, vive la France!

Add your comments as to why Americans hate the French

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Google Translate blows "Happy New Year"

With the some students staying with us for New Year's Eve, I wanted to make sure I knew how to say "Happy New Year" in French. I was pretty sure it was simply Bonne Année, but went to Google Translate to be sure, which inexplicably gave me the mouthful, heureuse nouvelle année! Yes, that's the literal translation, but not what French people typically say to each other on January 1 (or, as they know it, 1 January).

I know Google Translate isn't perfect, but this one surprised me, because Google uses a statistically-based algorithm, searching though its massive online database for all occurrences of the phrase to be translated, then choosing the translation (done by humans) that comes up the most frequently. Thus I would think "happy new year" would be an easy one, being such a common phrase.  Not so. 

This glitch is reminiscent of the early days of statistically-based machine translation, when researchers from IBM were using the Hansard -- the minutes of the Canadian Parliament, recorded in both English and French -- as their database. In the early tests, there were surprised to find the word "hear" translated by the software into "bravo." What gives? Well, it turns out, when a member says something that others approve of, they call, "hear, hear!" in that British fashion. The French-speaking members, meanwhile, say, "bravo, bravo,"  both responses duly recorded in the minutes. Thus the databases thought the most likely translation for "hear" was "bravo" until it was "taught" that one "hear" alone means one things, but "hear, hear" something else.

Well, no "bravo!" for Google. But Bonne Année, everyone!