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Sorry I didn't 'catch' that: Wrestling with English in France


To the displeasure of francophone purists, the French have a tendency to assimilate English words into their language. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the cases in which meaning ends up lost in the exchange.


Authorities and intellectuals in France have expressed alarm over the intrusion of English into French in recent years, claiming their noble language is being tainted and risks falling out of use internationally.

This month, Higher Education Minister Geneviève Fioraso was chastised for championing a bill that would allow some French university courses to be taught in English.

Fioraso said the reform would help attract more academic funds and foreign students to France, but critics said that it amounted to capitulating to American and British systems.

As much as one-third of the English language is said come directly or indirectly from French.

'Gourmet', 'judge', 'entourage' and around 10,000 other words commonly used by English speakers have French origins.

The debate is a recurring one in France. In 2010, a junior minister of francophonie was applauded and ridiculed in equal measures for organising a contest to find Frenchier replacements for the words “chat”, “buzz” and “newsletter”.

Similarly, since March 2011, France’s culture ministry is behind the collaborative website that seeks to find substitutes to hundreds of other commonly used words, most of which have migrated across the Atlantic or the English Channel.

Success stories exist: In the 1990s the French eventually adopted the words logiciel and baladeur for the then-encroaching “software” and “walkman”.

However, other English words have latched on with dogged determination.

Many come from the realms of computer technology and social networking. Thus, the French are commonly guilty of listening to un podcast and searching topics via un hashtag.

Others have nothing to do with the Internet. It’s possible for a troublemaker to get blacklisté from un club, or a businessman to deal with le challenge of being constantly surbooké with meetings.

But another more sinister possibility also exists: sometimes English words are assimilated by the French but infused with a completely novel meaning. Their technical term is pseudo-anglicisms, and they appear in many languages, but seem particularly prevalent here in France.

Below (on the left) are some words commonly heard in France. They sound English, but you might have trouble figuring out their meaning (provided on right).

Word used by French – To mean

Auto-stop – Hitchhiking
Baby-foot – Table football or football
Un break – A station wagon or estate car
Un brushing - Blow-dry one's hair
Catch – The sport of wrestling
Dispatcher – To distribute
Dressing – A walk-in closet or wardrobe
Flipper – A pinball machine
Footing – A jog or a run
Un jogging – A track suit
Money time – Used by French sportscasters in reference to the final minutes of a game
People – Celebrities
Planning – A schedule or work calendar
Pressing – The dry cleaner's
Un re-looking – A makeover
Slip – Underpants
Smoking – A tuxedo
Top – Great, brilliant
Les Warning – Hazard lights on a car

The above list is my no means complete. Do you have other, similar examples? Please share them with us by writing in the comments section below.

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