Amuse-Bouche: Shop Names and Word Games

Store names often combine two French obsessions: shopping and jeux de mots.

Walking to dîner with Albert and Maria, we passed their favorite librairie (bookstore, not library): Mona Lisait (Mona was reading). Great calembour (pun)! We don’t do that much in the United States. In France, “punny” shop names abound. Not to mention funny nicknames for well-known things. Going up the escalator of the Centre Pompidou (also known as le paquebot—the ocean liner—and sometimes ce tas de tubes—that pile of pipes), we saw la Tour Eiffel (pronounced Tour FL) begin to twinkle. Evenings, every hour on the hour, for five minutes, it looks just like an enormous sparkler. J’adore ! My Dutch husband, who thinks it’s vulgar, says that’s my Disneyland mentality.

At dinner we talked about how different cultures react to wordplay. In the United States, puns are considered the lowest form of humor (“P. U. That’s two-thirds of a PUN. Upon my word!”). But in France, linguistic cleverness adds prestige. A clever shop name implies intelligence, style and a sense of humor. “My favorite women’s clothing store,” said Maria, “is called Habitude” (“habit,” whose homonym habit means “garment”). “They hope I’ll make it a habit to go back.”
Some shops play with proper names: Cybèle (si belle) or cultural references like Chandail Express (quick sweater) with its similarity to the 1932 Marlene Dietrich movie Shanghai Express. The shop À Nanas (for gals) is a pun on ananas (pineapple). There’s also a girls’ rock music group called Baz Art à Nanas which includes a multiple pun on bazar (“bazaar” and also “disorder, noise, uproar”), bas art (low art), and the slang word baz for lycée (high school).
In the French Midi (the south, not middle, of France), stores catering to the large Anglophone population often use bilingual puns like L’adresse (La dress). Others play with place names: Pantibes is a pants store in Antibes. A diet center in Nice invented Cellunice from Nice, cellulite, and the English word “nice.” Another weight-loss spa contracts silhouette (figure) andelle (she) to produce Silhouelle, evoking the English homonym “well” at the end. Presumably they cure figure problems. And if you don’t lose weight? Buy your clothes at Femmes en Formes (“curvy women,” a pun on femmes en forme: women feeling good, in good shape).
“We almost chose a restaurant tonight,” adds Albert, “called L’Enclos de Ninon,” meaning “Annie’s enclosure,” which corrupts the name of Ninon de l’Enclos, a 17th-century écrivaine (politically charged feminization of écrivain—writer).
Now that I’m tuned in, I realize that Rénov’auto, our Renault garage, is a conflation of Renault, rénovation and auto. The business that replaced our windows is called Système Baie (bay-window system, which refers to le système D: using unconventional means to solve problems.) I laughed at the sign for a construction company called Batiman (pronouncedbâtiment—building). It shows a “Batman” with outstretched arms, but to make things clear, he wears a house for a hat.
The worst offenders are pet stores. Aristochien (aristo-dog), after Aristochat, the French title of the Disney movie The Aristocats, sells pedigreed puppies. Want to train your dog? Send him to Toutou’s Cool: toutou (doggie) school. Does he need grooming? That’s a job for Esthéti Chiens (a play on esthéticiens—the ones who give ladies facials). For pet supplies, go toChat L’heureux (“the happy cat,” a pun on chaleureux—warm, friendly).
I’ve always wondered what French tourists think of the New York pet shop called Le Pet Store. Literally translated to French, that means “the fart store”. When I mentioned this to the (American) owner, he said, “We added the ‘Le’ to sound elegant. No problem. None of our clients speak French.”