Given that France and French speakers are in the news recently, both locally and globally, I thought it would be a good time to examine some French words we hear, sometimes on a daily basis.

Most of the French I know came from watching countless hours of the Tour de France on TV. My days of sitting in the French classes of Messrs. Thibodeau and Theberge at Rumford High are a distant memory, and besides, I took French only because it was required so naturally I put forth just enough effort to pass.

But talk to me about “un coureur” (racer) who’s a good “grimpeur” (climber) ascending a “col de montagne” (mountain pass) while wearing “le maillot a pois” (the polka dot jersey signifying the race’s best climber), and I’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

Far behind the good climbers you’ll find the “domestiques” (support riders) and “rouleurs” (strong riders who don’t climb as well) in a cluster of racers called an “autobus” (also called a “gruppetto”). They’re riding together, just trying to make it to the day’s “ligne d’arrivee” (finish line) within the time limit and stay out of the “voiture balai” (broom wagon), which is a large van that follows the last rider in order to pick up any riders who are sick or have abandoned the race.

In addition to “Le Tour,” I also enjoy good wordplay and the French language just happens to be full of it for us English speakers. For example, I’m sure you’ve heard of the chickens in the water (“swimming poule”) who were watching a swimming race between two cats. One cat was named One Two Three, the other was named Un Deux Trois (One, Two, Three in French). As the story goes, unfortunately, Un Deux Trois cat sank. (If that joke fell flat for you, “cat sank” sounds like “quatre cinq,” which is “four, five” in French). It was a real “trajeudi” (bad Thursday).

There are other numbers to deal with when it comes to the French language. “I’ve got four twenty ten and nine problems,” said my French friend Henri, referring to how the French say the number 99 (quatre-vingt-dix-neuf), “and the way my language counts is one of those problems,” he added.


For instance, their way of saying the year 1997 is “thousand nine hundred four twenty ten seven” (mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-dix-sept).

In English it’s easy to ask, “What is that thing?” In French you end up with “Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette chose la?” (Literally, “What is it that it is that this thing here?”)

And the puns? Don’t get me started.

OK, do.

Did you know that a French omelet uses only one egg because one egg is an oeuf.

Or that haunted French pancakes give me the crepes. P-tssssss


All right, that’s an oeuf. On a more serious note, there are all those wonderful loanwords French gives us that we English speakers simply couldn’t do without, such as “deja vu” (already seen), without which Yogi Berra couldn’t have exclaimed that “It’s deja vu all over again.”

RSVP (répondez s’il vous plaît) asks you to “reply if it pleases you.” (So there’s no need to ask someone to  “Please RSVP” because that would be redundant.)

Without “du jour” we simply couldn’t order the soup “of the day” after we’ve enjoyed some “hors d’oeuvres” (literally “outside the work,” or not part of a meal’s normal courses).

“Carte blanche” (white card) is a blank slate that gives one the freedom to do what one wants – just be careful to not commit a “faux pas” (a false step in the form of a social blunder).

And speaking of social blunders, there’s “menage a trois,” which means (nope, it’s not what you’re thinking) “a household of three,” which could be located on a cul-de-sac (literally, bottom of the bag).

Much of what I’ve written here came from notes in my daily “jour”nal, so if some things make less than perfect sense, all I can do is ask that you please pardon my French. Really.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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