What’s a foreigner to do when a French word can mean so many things?
Sarah suggested lunch at L’Enfance du Lard. “C’est un resto médiocre, mais j’aime son nom” (Not a great restaurant, but I love the name). The French, ever champions of la nuance(subtlety), paradoxically love puns, particularly horrible puns for business names. L’Enfance du Lard (literally, “the childhood of bacon”) is a real groaner. Sarah explains: “‘C’est l’enfance de l’art‘ means it’s the first thing you learn about any art or craft.” Sort of like an American diner called A Piece of Cake.
Over our entrée (first course, not entrée), we chew on bilingual misunderstandings. Since there are only about two French words for every three English words, it takes a lot of words à double entente (“with two meanings” — the American expression “double entendre” doesn’t exist in French) to cover everything. And as we’ve noticed, French words used in English as well as English words used in French can be faux amis. Take, for example, le footing, which means jogging. Words with unpredictable, multiple, unrelated meanings seem designed to make life problématique for newcomers.
Imagine you’re a foreign student, a girl (but not une girl—a chorus girl), looking for housing. The location (rental) you’re after is in a distant location. Your embarras d’argent (lack of money) limits your choices, but an embarras de voitures (“too many cars,” i.e., a traffic jam), makes you late to the appointment. As you arrive, a man coming out the door says, “Je viens de louer l’appartement“ (I just rented the apartment). Was he the landlord or the new renter? Va savoir (go figure). In any case you’re still à la rue (out on the street, homeless). But this doesn’t mean you’re une fille des rues (prostitute).
You call a friend: “Peux-tu être mon hôte?” (Can you be my host, i.e., put me up?) “Avec plaisir,” he says, “where do you live?”Quoi? Who’s hosting whom? It’s the same word: If you visit him, he’s your hôte (host) and you’re his hôte (guest). You explain that tu n’as plus où coucher (you no longer have anywhere to sleep). “Ah! tu es dans de beaux draps!” Why does “in beautiful sheets” mean “in a real mess”? He offers you his floor.
Your idées noires (black thoughts) promise une nuit blanche (“a white night,” i.e., a sleepless one). But your white knight cheers you up with little wine. Then a little more. Les meilleurs crus provoquent les plus fortes cuites (the best vintages/raw things make you the drunkest/most cooked). Finally you sleep sur les deux oreilles (“on both ears,” i.e., soundly) despite the contortions required.
At last you locate a location. You’re working part-time. You’ve begun to mettre de l’argent de côté (put some money to the side), so as to have de l’argent devant toi (money in front of you). One day your boss tells you she’s decided to te remercier.You think she’s thanking you for a job well done, but un employé is remercié when one is NOT content de ses services. She’s firing you!
Tu refuses d’essuyer (“to wipe up”—i.e., put up with) cet affront, so you decide you’ll laver l’ injure (wash away the insult) by sticking up for yourself. “Je ne partage pas votre avis” (I don’t share your opinion) you say. “Les avis sont partagés,” (opinions are divided) she responds, showing you the door. She won’t even give you your last paycheck. It’s du travail au noir (“work in the dark,” i.e., an illegal job), and if you complain, you’ll be deported. Why is the last blow called le coup de grâce (pardon or mercy)? Sarah and I ponder the complexities of life over a coupe de glace (dish of ice cream).