Sunday, October 29, 2006

All the English You Need To Know . . . If You're French

The other night, I had occasion to look up the meaning of a word in French, so I pulled out the 1975 edition of the Petit Larousse Illustre, the wonderful French dictionary (salvaged, in the case of my copy, from the discard bin at the Chappaqua Public Library). As I invariably do, I found myself browsing its pages, which are temptingly laden with all manner of black-and-white and color pictures. To cite a few random examples:

  • Page 138: A full page devoted to black-and-white pictures illustrating the sport of boxing, with photos clearly depicting eight standard moves (from the "Uppercut du droit au menton" to "Crochet du gauche a la face") and tables showing the weight limits of eleven categories of fighters (from "Mouche" to "Lourd").
  • Between pages 192 and 193: A page with nine full-color pictures of edible mushrooms, contrasted with ten pictures of "Champignons mortels ou tres dangereux en France." (This page alone is worth the cost of the book--after all, it could save your life next time you go mushrooming in the French countryside.)
  • Between pages 384 and 385: A full-color diagram of a nuclear power plant, each part numbered to show how the atomic reaction is used to generate electricity, backed by a plate containing 19 full-color illustrations of different "Fleurs ornementales."
  • Page 752: A collection of black-and-white line drawings, deftly squeezed into less than a quarter-page, illustrating and naming no less than twenty different kinds of birds' feet, from "hirondelle" (my favorite, as a fan of Miro) to "autruche" (sound it out--yes, it's an ostrich).
  • Between pages 864 and 865: Four full-color pages with ravishing reproductions of 21 paintings, illustrating three categories of artists: "Peintures de la Renaissance," "Romantisme-Realisme," and (getting pride of place, in first position), "Ecole de Paris."

You can see why this book is hard to put down once you've picked it up. But what I really intended to write about was a curious sixteen-page insert, printed for some reason on pink paper, which lists "Locutions Latines et Etrangeres"--in other words, Latin and other foreign phrases and sayings that the editors of Petit Larousse felt their readers would most want to know.

The Latin expressions are interesting and somewhat predictable--phrases familiar from logic ("ad hominem"), philosophy ("cogito, ergo sum"), religion ("ecce homo"), and law ("jus privatum"). But the English expressions are something else again. Here are the seventeen phrases chosen, from the virtually infinite possibilities, to represent the genius of the English language (this is, I swear, a complete and accurate list from Larousse's pink pages):

All right. At home. English spoken. For ever! Go ahead! God save the king! Honest Iago. Much ado about nothing. Remember! Rule Britannia. Self-made man. Shocking. Struggle for life. That is the question. The right man in the right place. Time is money. To be or not to be.
It's interesting to try to trace the attitudes and assumptions of whoever compiled this list. He (let's assume male gender) was fond of Shakespeare--four of the expressions (including, of course, "That is the question") are from the plays.

He wanted, for some reason, to include phrases that might be used during the toasts at an old-fashioned English club; hence, "God save the king!" and "Rule Britannia," but also "For ever!" (which Larousse defines as the equivalent of "Vive a jamais!" as in "General X for ever!") and "Remember!" (which Larousse defines as "Dernier mot de Charles 1er, roi d'Angleterre").

He wanted to provide expressions that evoke the mercantile ethic of the Anglo-Saxon races; hence, "Self-made man," "Struggle for life," "The right man in the right place," and "Time is money."

Finally, he threw in a few miscellaneous expressions that one might find useful in English society, such as "At home" and "Go ahead"--although why he included "English spoken" is beyond me. Surely a French reader of Larousse who had to turn to the pink pages to discover the meaning of the phrase "English spoken" would not be seeking out shop fronts bearing those words. Instead, he'd be looking for shops with signs reading, "Ici on parle Francais," where a French visitor could shop without the necessity of periodically declaring "God save the king!" and "Rule Britannia!" to placate those jingoist Brits.

In short, it's impossible to scrutinize this list of essential English phrases without wondering, "What were they thinking?"

It's amusing to dissect a list like this and shake our heads about those silly Frenchmen. (I never claimed to be above a cheap laugh or two.) But as I pointed out here in a slightly different context, it's more useful to turn the lesson around and remember that our impressions of foreign cultures are almost always equally myopic. Which is one of the many reasons why it's probably not a good idea to hand foreign policy over to cowboys who pride themselves on their ignorance of the world beyond our shores.

It's never easy to understand a foreign culture--even when you're actually trying.

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