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.

1 comment:

  1. "je suis plein" is a confession that you're pregnant".
    Actually no: in some regions of France "je suis plein / je suis pleine" is used to say you've had enough to eat but it is really rude and bad French, very bad French.

    You can use "elle est pleine" for a cow / a dog, meaning it's pregnant. But to use it for a woman is also very rude and I wouldn't say that to anyone except if I want to be rude and show little respect.

    Here is a link to the expressions you should avoid when talking about a pregnant woman:


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