English translation of Chapter 22 of Les trucs d’anglais qu’on a oublié de vous enseigner, by Anglocom president Grant Hamilton, Certified Translator
People are used to bemoaning all the anglicisms that work their way into French, but did you know that it’s a two-way street? French has a huge impact on English too! In fact, following the Norman conquest in 1066, the English nobility actually spoke French for centuries. In 1908, renowned British linguist H.W. Fowler deplored the glut of French words and phrases that peppered the pages of London’s Times. These handoffs from French are called gallicisms, and they exist in a variety of forms.
Très chic gallicisms
What could be more chic than a French word? It’s a way to show how culturally sophisticated you are…or your audience is. Think of raison d’être, après-ski, apropos, roman à clef, soupçon, tête-à-tête (the reference to amour makes it extra chic!), rendezvous (almost always in terms of a date), je ne sais quoi, détente (in the political sense) and savoir-faire (which, funnily enough, tends to be used in English to mean what the French would call savoir-vivre). Although long part of the English language, these phrases are still pronounced with a hint of a French accent!
They don’t speak much French in the Land of the Free, but that doesn’t mean the French weren’t successful in leaving their mark. They are responsible for naming Detroit and Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan, Eau Claire in Wisconsin, and the capitals of Iowa (Des Moines), Louisiana (Baton Rouge), South Dakota (Pierre), Vermont (Montpelier), and Idaho (Boise).
We see these all the time in Quebec. They are words used by anglophones who are in contact with a predominantly francophone visual environment. For example, autoroute instead of highway or expressway: Anglophone Quebecers use the word because it is easy to pronounce, the two elements that make it up (auto and route) are also English words, and it appears on signs throughout the province. Other examples include cégep (a junior/vocational college), métro (the subway) and CLSC (an acronym for “local community service center”). Sometimes French words are borrowed and then altered, such as dépanneur (convenience store), which anglophone Montrealers often simply call a dep.
Although these words are commonly used in Quebec, it’s better to avoid them elsewhere or when addressing people from other places.
The name says it all: the word seems friendly enough, so you slip it into the conversation, but once there it betrays you, misleading all those who encounter it. False friends resemble French words, but don’t have the same meaning.
Take the word réellement. You might think it means really, but it doesn’t. It actually means actually! Hold on a second, you say to yourself, then what does actuellement mean? Actuellement is the French equivalent of currently. To complicate things even further, couramment has nothing at all to do with currently. It means commonly! Clearly, going by appearances can be dangerous!
Anglophones who spend a lot of time with francophones are particularly at risk of falling into this trap. We call these gallicisms hidden because, although they look like English, they are in fact French expressions masquerading as English. For example, close the light. Separately, these three words are fine, but together they sound rather strange. In English, you turn off the light; close the light comes directly from the French expression fermer la lumière.
These are the most difficult ones to weed out. They make translations stilted and wreak havoc on the eloquence of the source text. They can be caused by keeping ideas abstract when they are better expressed concretely in English; choosing an uncommon English word to translate a frequently used French word (or vice versa); following French syntax without paying attention to how it reads in English; or simply by neglecting to put the text in a cultural context that the reader will understand.