watch your language!

Synecdoche is the term for when part of something is used to represent the whole (the oft-cited example being “mouths to feed”). Loan words from other languages end up being employed similarly. We have a tendency to hear a word associated with something whether it’s a verb being conjugated – even in the past tense – or an adjective, and just use it as the concrete noun we assume it is. I see the collapse into this short-hand as inevitable.

Kveik is a colloquial Norwegian word for yeast. It’s not beer-specific; it can be used to make bread too. If using it in beer in the UK catches on (and I think it will, as there’s a thirst for everything new), it will become short-hand for a style. After all, we ask for a season (French) without specifying which of the four. For the most popular beer in Britain, you ask for a laid-down or a cellared (German).

The idle laws of loan words into adoptive languages conspire to twist their original meaning. This is nothing new. I have a bit of insight into this: I write as the son of a linguist. My father is English, my mother is French. My elder sister was brought up in Belgium speaking Walloon French but was assigned a Flemish name. We were then both raised in Wales speaking Welsh. Later in life, I lived in France after a spell in England, where I also studied German and Russian. Are you following so far?

I get how one language can use something it hears in another to just create a word without understanding the original context or usage. To us, a babushka is a furry hat. To Russians, it’s their grandmother. Think again about the part representing the whole – in this case, the whole has been usurped by one of its parts!

The French language delivers some of these botched lobotomies with our own words. It’s astonishing how two rival countries so close together and with such a long shared history can mangle each others’ tongues so comprehensively. Subconsciously, is this wilful? An ancient antagonism between the two lands?

“Un brushing” has become French for a blow-dry. “Relookage” combines the worst elements of both languages. It means a makeover. This also confirms the linguistic acts of carnality between the two nations – both chew, regurgitate into each others’ mouths and then suck the mulch back in.

What the French might potentially be doing is confusing our words that end with “ing” with German nouns that end in “ung”. Basic German and basic English looks similar to them. But that’s only a theory.

We are known as “les rosbifs” over there. The Scots are excused from this due to past team-ups waging war against England. Wales – though at times equally pugilist – doesn’t really get a look-in, but like Cornwall, has some empathy in Brittany. Ireland is other.

“Les rosbifs” is a phonetic rendering of “the roast beefs” – a dish we fevered after in the nineteenth century. The irony is that both the words “roast” and “beef” come to us from French in the first place. We disgorged it back and they ruminated it again. Language. Identity. Mockery. Parrot ad infinitum.

Potage is a general French word for a thick soup. Now try pronouncing it with a Scouse accent and you end up with another English word: porridge. Notice also how the meaning has changed.

Another example is what we did to their white pork sausage: imagine an English peasant struggling to pronounce “boudin” and slaughtering it – “boo-dayne”. If you guessed this ended up as the word pudding, you guessed right. Somehow it now (except with black or blood pudding) refers to a sweet dish that follows a meal. Predictably, the French now talk of “un pudding” as the last course. At least they got the usage right this time.

You can buy vol-au-vents in Tescos. However, you can’t buy “flying into the winds” in Carrefour.

Translate the renowned Parisian beer bar “La Fine Mousse” and you end up with an establishment called “good head” in English. In Britain, that would be located in one of the seedier districts. In French, it’s completely innocent.

Toubon getting passionate. Image source: Wikipedia

During my time in France – almost three years (incorporating ages thirteen to fifteen), a minister for culture was appointed in the dusk of Mitterrand’s tenure as president: Jacques Toubon. He attempted to curb the amount of English loan words into French by eliminating them from all government literature. That was the easy part.

Toubon then decided to impose fines on television presenters and radio DJs if they used the dreaded Anglo-Saxon (go to a bookshop in France and this is how English language books are catalogued).

We don’t need to be experts on the French mindset – he obviously wasn’t – to know how the French public would react to a government-imposed attempt to control its own culture. After all, the French love being told what to do by the authorities, don’t they?

French might well be the language that has more derogatory words for police officer than any other. How did they react to the new parking meters lining the pavements in the 1960s? They decapitated them (in Britain, we indignantly refused to pay – seeing it as unlicensed backdoor taxation).

Thereafter, the amount of English words breaching the French dam swept in like an Old Testament flood. Each fine was paraded with grandiose street cred – that token badge of honour – even before that became popular.

Way to go preserving the French language Monsieur “All good” – ministre de la Culture pour la France.

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