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French Words and Expressions I Forgot—No, Really!

Canadian Mounties, Rideau Hall, October 2012

I used to speak French like a French person. Hardly surprising considering I was born and raised in France—yes, I like to state the obvious (and after all, the University of Ottawa made me take the French as a second language test a couple of years ago!).

But lately, I realized that there were quite a few words or expressions I hadn’t used in ages.

We are an English-speaking household; I don’t speak French on a daily basis. I only do so when I call my parents on Skype or when I meet a French-speaking friend in Ottawa. These days, I mostly read American and Canadian novels in English with the occasional “roman policier” (thriller) in French.

However, as a translator and bilingual copyeditor, I read and write in French on a daily basis. I work for several large local organizations in the private and the public sectors. Most of my clients want to reach a Canadian audience, so I have to keep that fact in mind when I’m translating or editing communication products.

In short, I’m not using my “Parisian” French but a fairly neutral yet grammatically correct and easy to understand flavour of Canadian French. I can’t use too many Quebec expressions because not all French-Canadians are from Quebec, and I certainly wouldn’t use Parisian French because, well, we are not in France.

It’s an interesting balancing act. The French I’m using must be straightforward and to the point and reach as many French-speaking Canadians as possible—newcomers and locals all over the country alike.

As a result, I’m slowly losing my “Parisian” French because I don’t use it.

For instance, I recently realized I hadn’t say “putain” in ages—no big deal I guess, considering it is a swear word after all. “Putain” literally means “prostitute”. In France, this little—slightly offensive—word can mean many things depending on the context, it can even be used as a comma! It is somewhat comparable to “fuck” in English, although I would say it is less offensive than the four-letter word. The use of “putain” in media wouldn’t be censored, for instance.

But I no longer swear in French. If I stub my toe on the table, I’ll rant against the “damn table”, not the “putain de table”. I guess it is a sign of fluency!

Another funny little French word I no longer use is “vachement”, which literally translates as “cowly” but means “really” or “very”. For instance, “(putain)  il fait vachement froid” means “it’s really cold”. Some Quebecers find this word hilarious because… well, it does refer to a cow.

Thanks to Quebec, I also stopped using fake English words, i.e. words that sound English and are used in France but don’t actually mean anything in proper English. For instance “le pressing” (“dry-cleaner” or “nettoyeur” in Quebec French), “les baskets” (“running shoes” or “chaussures de sport” in Quebec French), “le smoking” (“tuxedo” or “costume” in Quebec French). I also adopted the Quebec translation of “weekend” (“fin de semaine”), “email” (“courriel”), “manager” (“gestionnaire”), etc. French do tend to use a lot of Anglicisms and those wouldn’t be acceptable here, especially from a translator!

Finally, because I’ve been away from France for so long, I kind of lost touch with the culture… and trendy new expressions. For instance, when I was in school in the 1980s and 1990s, a type of widely used slang was “verlan”. It consisted of playing around with syllables, kind of along the same lines as pig Latin. The name “verlan” is an example: it is derived from inverting the syllables in “l’envers” (“the inverse”). This slang was a form of expression in French hip-hop but I think it is pretty much gone now and I would probably sound stupid using it.

How about you? Do you keep track of new slang words in your mother tongue? Has the way you express yourself changed?

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