How much French do you speak?

Just the other day, I was watching my latest favorite television series, Downton Abbey, and I heard one of the characters use a French word I’d never heard used before in an English sentence: “She’s found her métier—farm laboring.” That struck me as the height of pretension, but then again, it is a show about English aristocrats during the First World War. In any case, métier means “profession, occupation, or trade.” I knew this word from my French classes, of course, but I never knew that we used it in English. I guess being a country boy from South Carolina, I wasn’t high-class enough to have trotted it out in my own conversations. It got me thinking, though, about how much French there actually is in English. As it turns out, between the recent imports and what we inherited from the Normans, there’s a lot more than you might imagine.

Recent Imports

Métier is one of those French words that entered the English lexicon in recent centuries through literature, the arts, and other cultural exchanges. Because we “adopted” them directly into English, they’ve preserved their unmistakable character as Gallicisms even when we don’t pronounce them exactly right. Originally, these words were used primarily by the upper echelons of society (Look, there’s another one!), those privileged enough to have spent their time reading, visiting art exhibits, and traveling to France. As such, although they may be recognizable by a broad segment of today’s English-speaking population, they aren’t used in the normal course by most of us … except perhaps when we want to sound chichi.

used under license from CartoonStock
used under license from CartoonStock

Continue reading How much French do you speak?

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You don’t say!

Registering for my fall classes this morning got me thinking about what it is that I really love about learning a foreign language. It’s certainly not conjugating the pluperfect of the subjunctive mood! Instead, it’s linguistics and etymology: how we say the things we say, and why it is we say them that way. Today’s musing:

pas

For anyone with even a basic knowledge of French, “pas” is a pretty easy word. It means “not” … right? Well, I’ll get back to that in a minute but, more importantly for now, “pas” also means “step” — as in the motion we make when we place one foot in front of the other. Hence, we have the expression “faux pas” — one that we’ve adopted directly into English — meaning a mistake or, more precisely, a “false step.” So, how exactly did a word that means “step” also come to be the most common word in French to mean “not”?

Continue reading You don’t say!