Hints for Newcomers – Hindsights for Old-Timers

Hints-and-Hindsightsby Shari Leslie Segall

Yes! The FUSAC Hints for newcomers-Hindsights for old-timers Department does keep its promises! As our pledges made in past columns – to “further explain” this or “give examples of” that or “add to the list of” the other – seem to have slipped away from us, we are reeling them back right here, and are thus pleased to present the following handful of random fascinating France-and-French-related facts ‘n figures – some that we owe you, others because we think they’re… well… fascinating.

La Toussaint, etc.

Although the word saint is masculine (le saint – the feminine version is la sainte), the name of the All Saints’ Day holiday (November 1) uses the feminine definite article: la Toussaint. This is because fête – meaning “holiday” – is a feminine noun, and it’s understood that Toussaint is une fête. [1]

About that circumflex above the first “e” in fête: A holiday is often a time for a “feast,” n’est-ce pas? When you see a circumflex in a French word, you can usually find an “s” in some Germanic- and Romance-language equivalents: pâtes > pasta – maître > master – hôpital > hospital – août > August – bâton > baston (Spanish for various kinds of “canes” and “sticks”) – fenêtre > defenestration (the act of throwing a thing or, usually, a person out of a window)/Fenster (German)/fenestra (Latin – which of course came first, as it did in the name of the French city of Angoulême, which was Angoulesme back in the Gallic day. The Latin examples give us an idea of the evolution of the circumflex.) – etc.

For that matter, when you see an acute-accented “e” in the first syllable of a French word, you can usually find an “s” in its English translation: école-school – étoile–star – dépenser–spend – etc.

All Saints Day is November 1. Halloween is October 31. Connection? You bet! The word “Halloween” comes from “hallow/hallowed/ the hallows” (concerning that which is “holy”: our dear departed lie in hallowed ground)…and…“een,” a contraction of “evening” that in this case means “the evening before,” i.e., the “eve.” The pagan Halloween is thus the eve of the Catholic “All Saints’ Day” (also known as All Hallows Day!).

More from Miss Communication

It’s said that German spies living in the U.S. during World War II were occasionally caught because of what seemed like minutiae: prepositions of sometimes no more than two letters! These were Germans who had learned English as toddlers from native speakers and thus spoke with perfect American accents. They had been drilled in the arcane rules and colorful jargon of football. They knew all the state capitals (that should have given them away right therewhat American can match that?). They could be counted on to invite the whole neighborhood to July 4th Bar-B-Qs and to know exactly how to season the potato salad. But when it came time to say, for instance, “I go to work by bus,” some would say, “I go to work with the bus,” the translation of mit dem Bus fahren. Having been sensitized by the government to be on the lookout for spies, their friends or colleagues would often contact the authorities the minute the misplaced prepositions left these imposters’ lips. [2]

Although national security is no longer at stake with any of our European cousins, the potential for misunderstanding is. Sometimes dangerously so. Consider these exchanges between an Anglophone and a Francophone not totally familiar with each other’s language (if they were, they’d figure out what was going on):

Pierre (sticking his head into Mary’s office in search of a colleague): Is John there?

Mary: Is John where?

Pierre: There. Is John there?

Mary: Is John where?

Pierre: There. There!

Mary: Where is “there”? I don’t know where you’re referring to!

Pierre: I can’t make it any clearer! IS JOHN THERE?!

—-

You: Can we have a meeting about this next Monday, June 1?

Hélène: I’ll be in Cannes next Monday. I’ll be there the rest of next week.

You: Then what about the following Monday, June 8?

Hélène: What about Tuesday, June 2? I just said I’ll be there the rest of next week.

You: You said you’d be in Cannes the rest of next week.

Hélène: I said no such thing! I’ll be in Cannes on Monday. I’ll be there the rest of next week!

You: WHO’S ON FIRST?!

Ah, the things your non-native-speaking high school French teacher, beloved as she was, never told you! Or, told you, but incompletely. Or… Yes, ici means “here” and means “there.” But when indicating where someone is or is not to be found, Francophones use whether they are referring to a remote location (when English speakers would use “there”) or to a proximate location (when English speakers would use “here”). Then they translate this into franglais before addressing you, all the while vigorously patting themselves on the back for speaking such great English. By asking if John is “there” (Est-ce que Jean est là?), Pierre meant “Is John right in this very office in which you and I are located right at this very moment? I.e., is he here?” – Hélène’s English version of Je serai à Cannes lundi. Je serai là le reste de la semaine tells you that after her Monday trip to Cannes she will be here (wherever you and she are when she’s telling you this) the rest of the week. [3]

Coming up in future columns: Facts, figures and false ideas re French/Parisian history, sociology, culture – and more!

Check out Shari’s new book: 90+ Ways You Know You’re Becoming French

  1. The Hints-Hindsights Department is also humble – we admit that there’s a lot we don’t know! If anyone can tell us why there is no “s” on Toussaint when tous is plural and the translation is “All Saints,” we’d be most grateful.
  2. They were also sometimes caught because their handlers had forgotten to tell them to change the way they held their forks and knives, but that story will have to wait for another column.
  3. When she wants to say in French that she will be there in Cannes the rest of the week, she says, Je serai à Cannes lundi. J’y serai le reste de la semaine.