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.