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.

23 thoughts on “Le grammar-ing

  1. In fairness, we occasionally do very strange things to the French language, either by cod French such as “cul de sac” (for which the French is “une impasse”) or just changing the meaning of the word. If “expertise” ever meant “appraisal” in English, it certainly doesn’t mean that now.

  2. I had noticed these adoptions of English words and had wondered vaguely about the -ing suffix. Now that you have brought them together, the gravity of the situation becomes more clear.
    On the other hand, Americans (and the English? not sure) call the main course the entrée. And they pronounce lingerie as lawn-jer-ay.
    But then the French call sweatshirts “un sweet.”
    Maybe the anglophones and francophones are tied for desecrating the other’s tongue.

    1. Yes! We do abominable things with the French tongue (though entrée is American…). Though I admire the French for their consistency and their firm belief that they are right. Thank you for stopping by again.

  3. Haha, I am giggling to myself in a corner of the library right now. I pronounced it “shampoo-ing” instead of “shampoin” for the longest time! Also, my first year in France my now-mother-in-law asked if I wanted to go for a “footing” and I prudently said no – I thought it was some sort of obstacle course for some reason (NO idea why) but just as well, as I hate jogging. And of course “un jogging” is sweatpants (or maybe you call them something else?) which most people don’t jog in anyway! Oh, French.

  4. Oh Emily, this has been on my list of blog ideas for ages but you’ve written about it with so much more humour than I ever could so I’m not sure I can now! I adore these “ing” words and hate to admit that I use parking all the time without a second thought after 20 years in France. Thakns for linking to #AllAboutFrance

    1. Yes, Phoebe, I ought to have confessed that I occasionally talk about le planning before I realise what I have done. Always a pleasure to link to #AllAboutFrance

  5. Popping by exactly a month late from #AllABoutFrance and I so relate to this post especially as I had to ask my son only this week how to pronounce shampooing … so I am glad I have never had to ask a French person! And it makes me chuckle at how much English (usually bad English) slips into daily French life, despite the very best attempts of the Académie Française to stop just this.

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