Le grammar-ing

On my fortnightly dash around the hypermarché, I temporarily mislaid the products for washing one’s children. Having zig-zagged fruitlessly up and down several times, I finally gave in and asked an assistant where le shampooing pour enfants could be found. Any native English-speaker who has ever tried to pronounce le shampooing in a hurry will understand my reticence in seeking help on this matter. Needless to say, I mangled the Gallic oingt sound required of me, provoking in my interlocutor first bafflement and then near-hysteria.

Mais vous etes britannique, non ? she asked, through her tears. Le shampooing c’est un mot anglais ! Precisely because I am indeed britannique, I suppose, I smiled and nodded politely at this insult, before taking directions and trotting off obligingly with my trolley. What I should have said, however, is “non ! Le shampooing is not at Engleesh mot. And if it were it would be pronounced “oo” and then “ing” not wuahng. Bim.”

There are many words used in French which, like le shampooing and the even more confused après-shampooing (conditioner), are derived from an English noun, but which, for some inexplicable reason, have had an –ing tacked onto them, when in fact they are neither gerund nor present participle.

For some reason, a high proportion of incorrect –ing words crop up in the field of beauty. A quick stroll around the centre of my local village will produce a hairdresser offering his customers un looking, or (presumably for those whose looking has become a little tired), un relooking. He has even been known to offer un nouveau relooking for anyone willing to risk a third attempt. For those who would be better off sticking their head inside a paper bag, there are doctors who can offer un lifting (a facelift, rather than a session with dumbbells and fake tan).

The curly one undergoing some -ings at the hairdresser’s

Comfortingly, if you don’t want any degree of looking or lifting, you can just fall back on un brushing, which is not a brushing at all, but a blow-dry. Or you could be entirely self-reliant and don un jogging (tracksuit) to go for un footing (a jog, not a session of footsie beneath the table), perhaps having previously done le zapping (changed channels on the TV) until you have found a programme showcasing the French equivalent of Mr Motivator. Or you could simply take your clothes into the village for le pressing (dry-cleaning).

A picture which explains why le brushing is sometimes necessary
The curly one after a little light relooking

Many –ing words used in French have a worrying air of incompleteness. When driving about in the countryside it is not uncommon to see signs for le campingLe camping what? Camping stove? Actually, it means campsite, where an –ing had no business in the first place. Similarly you may be directed to leave your car in un parking… which means car park. You may hang your clothes in un dressing (room, otherwise known as a wardrobe). You could even go on an outing to le bowling (alley), wearing un smoking (jacket).

Most upsetting of all is the impression these words convey of their English authenticity. That shop assistant did not mean to be insulting: she was probably quite proud to be deploying a genuinely English word. This misapprehension can lead to some quite disconcerting moments when French people speak in English to you, and say things like Eymileee, I am so pleased to ‘ear zhat you also like zhe fooding. Per’aps you can look at your planning and we can go for dinner and zhen go to a dancing? (Well, that would be lovely, but only once we have done an hour’s crash course on gerunds.)

I find all of this even more peculiar given a context in which the Académie Française attempts to maintain its vice-like grip on every aspect of the langue française. Special distaste is reserved by this venerable institution for evil Anglo-Saxon words which are attempting to penetrate the francophone vocabulary. When Lauren Collins was privileged enough to attend one of the Académie’s meetings, she marvelled over the length of time they dedicated to the formation of French neologisms designed to combat such nasty invading terms as “business as usual” (comme si rien n’était was a popular option). I can’t help but wonder how it is that a country that offers up such reverence to the niceties of its own tongue can show such a casual disregard for the basic grammatical principles of another. If your language is to be swamped, you could at least make sure that it is swamped impeccably…

… or perhaps this bastardisation of English words is all part of a cunning plan to discredit the language of the Anglo-Saxons, which is, after all, laughably simplistic.

In the bleak midwinter

Lyon has a continental winter: that is to say that it is cold. I have stopped remarking on this in the presence of French people, however, because I am bored of finding good-humoured ripostes to the suggestion that, being British, I should be used to freezing temperatures. OK, so the Lyonnais winter is sub-hyperborean, but when it comes to bone-chill it beats London hands-down. Since moving here we might as well have taken out shares in knitwear and doudounes.

Last week saw an afternoon of particularly glacial conditions during which I had the misfortune to need to spend more than five minutes standing outside. Under ordinary circumstances I might have done a few burpees just to stay alive, but the presence of witnesses rendered this inadvisable, so I took up desperate shivering instead.

I had with me the Reader, who was on her way to a dance class. As well as her leotard and tights, we had swaddled her in velour tracksuit bottoms, thick socks, two long sleeved-tops, a high-necked fleece jumper, a thick winter coat, woolly hat, and gloves. Despite looking like a Michelin man, her lips quickly turned blue and her normal pallor increased to the extent that she was almost transparent.

Oh la la, elle a froid, everyone said (for some reason my offspring, despite also being British, are immune to jibes about their constitutional resilience to the cold). Despite exuding all the warmth of an ice-pack, I gave the Reader a hug to demonstrate that her predicament bothered me, too. Then (bingo!) all at once came the two remarks that I should have been expecting from the outset: c’est son cou ! Mais elle ne porte pas d’écharpe ! Oh la la: elle va attraper la grippe !

I shall examine the second statement first. All French people seem to be taught in school that disease springs from changes in temperature. If a French person is cold they will immediately catch a cold. I may be no scientist, but for me it has been fairly convincingly demonstrated that the common cold is caused by a virus, not by air temperature. The good old NHS tells me that becoming cold can increase the likelihood that a virus you are already carrying may become active, but that without the presence of the virus in the first place, nothing will happen.

France may be a nation that prides itself on its scientific rigour, but I have learnt that no amount of pesky evidence will dispel this causal association between ambient temperature and illness. I therefore continue to endure accounts of how someone has travelled between sunny climes and the frozen wastes of the north, the changements de temperature resulting in some terrible maladie. I have also schooled myself in not challenging the idea that the common rhume is the same as the grippe. We may not get the ‘flu in the UK very much, but in France, a runny nose equals the grippe. Point.

Back to the poor Reader, before her limbs become numb with cold. The idea that an exposed neck is particularly dangerous is equally unfounded. Yes, it has often been claimed that we lose most of our body heat through our heads (and, yes, our heads are balanced on our necks), but research published in the British Medical Journal has shown these claims to be false. We may be more sensitive to changes in temperature in our head, face and chest (and by extension, I suppose, neck) than we are in other parts of our body, but these areas lose heat no more quickly than anywhere else.

The French concern with keeping the cou warm at all costs has led to what can only be described as a national obsession with scarf-wearing. From the moment that the thermometer drops below about 20ºC, only the clinically insane would leave the house without a trusty écharpe (it’s acceptable to start the season with chiffon, so long as you progress to wool or fleece at below 10 ºC). Allowing one’s child to step outside without one is almost criminal. (Why do I feel the need to remind you here that the Reader’s neck was not exposed, but was in fact covered by her roll-neck fleece jumper?)

The Reader and her sister in winter scarves, with their aunt, who is lucky to be alive without one

I can only presume that it is from this worship of the magical properties of the écharpe that the French man’s love affair with the man-scarf springs. Take a stroll around any French office and you will see but a tiny smattering of ties. Scarves, on the other hand, you will see aplenty. And whereas in a British workplace a silk or chiffon scarf might be considered to be mildly effete, in France such an item is de rigeur. Indeed, you might be mistaken for thinking that they formed part of the uniform of the workplace.

As part of my regular audit of how French our family may have become, I note that Eadred the Bald has embraced this sartorial choice wholeheartedly. It is relatively difficult to convince him to put on his underpants before donning his man-scarf in the morning, and panic sets in if he can’t find his accessory as he is leaving the house. I even have great difficulty persuading him to take it off before he splatters tomato soup down it at lunchtime.

Eadred boldly exports the man-scarf to an English pub

Mind you. Eadred is ill far less often than the rest of us. Perhaps there is something in this scarf-wearing, after all…