Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wordsmith Wednesday: Cherchez la femme

As French president François Hollande tours the US sans femme, or "stag," as the Times put it, because his unmarried partner left when it was revealed that Hollande was motorscooting over to his mistress regularly, I'd like to take a moment to point out a feature of the French language that has always puzzled me: 

The French have a distinct word for "husband"  -- mari -- but none for "wife." The word femme  means both woman and wife.

When I pointed this out to a teacher at the language school I attended in France, she was astounded. "Never occurred to me," she said. Then after some thought, she offered that the same is true for daughters and sons. A son is a fils but a daughter is, once again, just a girl, a fille. Say fille and you could be talking about either your daughter or the girl who milks the cows.

So, what does this have to do with Hollande and his mistress? Or more broadly, the fact that the custom of French men taking mistresses is so common, even accepted, in France. Could there be a connection between the language and the culture? Put another way, does the absence of a dedicated word for “wife” reflect a French woman’s status? She's just a woman, but the man -- ah, he's something else!

Food for thought, anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. When are women going to get some respect? We must demand it! In the English language, at least in the U.S., adult females are frequently referred to as "girls", but adult men are almost always called "men". Sometimes they are called "guys", but they are almost never called "boys". Watch TV. Listen to conversations in your everyday life. Pay attention. You'll see that this is true, most of the time.

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