Monday, January 10, 2011


Winging it when words fail me
Without an iota of pretension I can say I've dished out some choice French malapropisms in my day. My slips can sometimes be of the Freudian order, but are more often impromptu concoctions that attest to the proverb that a little learning is a dangerous thing.   Knowing that about 30 percent of words in the English language have French origins, I long ago formed the hit-or-miss habit of giving a French pronunciation to English words when I wasn't sure of their French counterparts.

This free-ranging linguistic practice is not uncommon among landed-francophones. Indeed, when it works it impresses French interlocutors, making them wish they could in turn speak English so well, provided that the transformed word has a somewhat erudite ring to it, like sybarite. It can backfire, however. Take for example the time I complained to my French dentist about a toothache. I used the English word "molar" pronouncing it mo-lar', stressing the second syllable thinking that sounded French enough. Well, it was French, but not the kind a lady would use.

Our molar is molaire in French. What I pronounced was very vulgar French slang for something else: material evacuated from the mouth after efforts of expectoration, i.e., mollard or more politely, crachat. No wonder my dentist backed away, pulled off his mask and exclaimed, "Molaire!"

Gargoyle, Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur,
Narbonne, photo P.B.Lecron
At the time, mollard was not in my jargon (actually, it still isn't) and it was only after asking a French friend to explain to me what I had said wrong that I realized I had some talent at missing educated guesses.  

Little by little I plan to divulge some of my best mistakes in this blog, starting with what I said just a few days ago after a dental appointment. "Le dentiste m'a dit que je dois gargoyliser trois fois per jour." (I wanted to say, "The dentist told me I have to gargle three times a day.") That should have been gargariser, to gargle...

©2011 P.B.Lecron; 
Permission to publish photo attributed to Florian Siebeck,, pursuant to GNU Free Documentation License. 

1 comment:

  1. Ah, well, chalk it up to the nervousness of going to the dentist. It can be pretty hard to speak when the dentist is busy working on your mouth, especially when you have to listen to and speak in a different language.