Illogical French

I love languages because you can always, always learn new things, whether it’s your native language or your second or third (or fourth or fifth, or sixteenth, you show-off).

I ponder words constantly. French makes me laugh. English makes me laugh. I’m frustrating to French speakers, because I always want to know why. Why is “start-up” feminine? (Yes, “start-up” in French is “la start-up.”) Why is the feminine of “rigolo” “rigolote”? Sometimes I get cut off from asking questions. “Non, chérie! Tu poses trop de questions!” You ask too many questions! No more for the rest of the day!

Here’s something I learned tonight that I’ll be pondering for awhile. Christmas Island is “l’Ile Christmas” in French. But Easter Island is “l’Ile de Pâques.” Why?! Why translate Easter (Pâques) but not Christmas (Noël)?! It’s illogical!

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French faux pas: piquer

When I moved to France and started spending more and more time with French people, I rapidly picked up a new vocabulary that I hadn’t learned in school. Things that people use all the time in conversation that I hadn’t run across reading Flaubert (unless Flaubert talked about kiffing his meuf, and if he did, oh dear lord please tell me where.)

One word I heard over and over was “piquer”which previous I had only known as in a ballet move I was super awesome at (on the right leg, anyway). Literally, it means to prick or sting, but it’s often used to mean borrow or steal. As in, “Je peux te piquer la cuillère?” “Can I grab that spoon from you?” and “Hé, je t’ai piqué tes chaussures pour la fête hier soir.” “Hey, I borrowed your shoes for the party last night.” Or if you’re in Paris, “Ce connard m’a piqué mon portefeuille dans le métro!” “That jackass stole my wallet in the metro.”

Anyway, one weekend I was staying with my BFF and her French roommates, and their two cats. One of the cats took a liking to me and was my personal cuddle bug all weekend. She even sat on my belly while I was sleeping, requiring me to lie perfectly still on my back all night. (Imprisonment of this sort is a sign of the deepest affection in cats, if you didn’t know.*)

At the end of the weekend when I said goodbye to the cat’s owner, I wanted to thank her for letting me borrow her cat all weekend, so I said, “Merci de m’avoir laissé piquer ton chat.” She looked at me oddly, then gently explained, “Actually, when we say ‘piquer un animal’ it means to kill it with a shot, to put it down.”

Oh! Not exactly what I was going for.

So if you want to borrow someone’s pet without getting your kitty privileges revoked, stick with “emprunter” – to borrow. Much safer!

*You can learn more about strange cat behaviors here and here thanks to The Oatmeal.