One of the “French English” words that I love most is “comfortable” because … well, like most people, I like being comfortable in a comfortable place. That’s one of the great things about the word — it can describe both someone who’s in a state of physical or mental comfort and the thing or condition that makes them that way. “I’m so comfortable when I’m lying in my comfortable bed!” Like that. Little did I know when I came to France, though, the French equivalent “confortable” doesn’t work quite the same way …
As much as I like being comfortable, I like to know that the people around me are comfortable, too. I’m almost nebby about it … “Is everything alright? Are you okay? Can I get you something? Are you comfortable?” Whether it was on the sofa while watching a movie, in a train on our vacation, or during a quick aside when meeting my family or friends, I was constantly asking my husband Michel if he was comfortable …
“Ça va? Tu es confortable?“
On the outside, Michel was telling me that everything was fine but, on the inside, he was apparently laughing at me. Why? Because I wasn’t asking him if he was “in a state of comfort” … I was asking if he was something that can put you in a state of comfort, like a nice, soft bed. You see, the French don’t use confortable to mean anything else. A bed is confortable — a person isn’t. Finally, one day, Michel corrected my months and months of erroneous usage, but from force of habit, I still slip up from time to time and use confortable to describe myself or him.
If you just look at the word and think about it, it’s easy to understand why comfortable means “offering comfort.”
comfort + able = able to comfort = comfortable
But how did it come to mean in English the condition of being in comfort? According to Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary, “comfortable” (as used to describe something that gives you comfort) entered the Middle English lexicon in the 14th century, but the first documented use of comfortable to mean “in a state of tranquil enjoyment” dates only to 1770. Who knows how we started using the word like this? Like most evolution of language, I guess, someone just said it one day and it caught on. The important point is that the French don’t say this … at least not yet.
Instead, the French use “à l’aise” (literally, “at ease”) to describe being in a state of comfort. Not so hard to remember, in fact. So, if you’re an anglophone speaking French to your francophone friends, here are a few pointers:
Don’t tell your friends that you’re “vraiment confortable” no matter how relaxed you are. Instead, say “Je suis vraiment à l’aise.”
When you invite your dinner guests in, don’t tell them to make themselves “confortable” while you finish up in the kitchen. Instead, say something like “S’il vous plaît, mettez-vous à l’aise. Je reviens tout de suite; je finis de cuisiner.” (Or, replace “mettez-vous à l’aise” with “faites comme chez vous,” which means “make yourself at home.”)
Take my advice to avoid those polite smiles that cover up the fact that your friends are chuckling inside … that is, unless you really do want to tell them how cuddly you are, or how cuddly you want them to be!
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved