Franglais

A couple of weeks in the south of France has many attractions – the architecture, landscape, the wine, the weather, the food, and, yes, the people.  Have the French made a decision to be less ratty and exploitative in recent years ? Seems so to me; we met some charming and lively people, including one couple who invited us to their home in St Raphael on the basis of a cordial lunchtime conversation.

What is striking, though, is the spread of Franglais.  By that, I don’t mean the willingness of French people to speak standard English, though that is markedly increasing.  When I went to France as a kid, it seemed that even French people who spoke decent foreign languages refused to do so, as if it were a slight on the national honour.  Now, the position is sometimes reversed. Speaking decent French is always appreciated (yes, someone did ask what region I came from, purr, purr), but elsewhere it can be difficult to stop French people speaking English, even when you want them to.  And it’s not quite like Holland or Germany or Austria, where someone with perfect English feels they are being helpful.  The French may be more willing, but their competence hasn’t yet reached those Saxon levels.  And a waiter who persists in speaking a brand of English that is markedly worse than my French has the potential to be very irritating.

I can see the attraction of English.  It is the language of business – we spoke to a couple of people who said that English was the language of their workplace in a multinational company.  Science is conducted in English. At my old grammar school in the 1950s, boys studying chemistry were encouraged to learn German as that was the language of discourse, but it isn’t any more.  English is also the language of Hollywood, and pop music.  In England, kids can regard learning a foreign language as a bit of a bind. But if it were the language of the most beautiful actresses, the hippest pop singers ?

But my topic for today is not French proper, but Franglais, that lovely mixed-up use of Anglicisms within French that is increasing so markedly.  The BBC recently collected some anecdotes, and I am going to add a few more.  There is a huge amount of Franglais which I think comes from the search for cool.  In fact, “cool” is one of the preferred words of the new usage – even “hypercool”.  A casual clothes shop was titled “Jean’s Lovers” (the misplaced apostrophe is as common in French high streets as British ones, I am afraid).  The pet shop is “Animal City”, the fitness club is, well, “Fitness Cub” or “Body Minute”.  On a Camargue Beach, a bar called “Palm Beach” (perhaps Palm Beach has a posh bar called “La Camargue”).  The employment agency was called “Start People”, and it ran a young people’s career fair called “Jobs d’Ete”.  Sex toys are, inevitably, “Sex Toys”.  Sometimes French and English are brought together with an ear-splitting thud, as in “sandwicherie”.  Shops have English signage – I was surprised to see how often “Sorry, We Are Closed” was hung on doors well out of tourist areas.  And the observation made after the London Olympics – that the Union Jack is a popular youth emblem – certainly seems to be true, with UK jeans and bags, T-shirts and shorts.

The products are also being frangled.  Timberland and Levis, Subway and Macdonalds are, of course, international and to be expected, but maybe not a fried chicken outlet that advertises the great deals available from “Nos Buckets”.  “Tee-shirt” is universal – indeed, the ones I bought at Monoprix were labelled “modern fit”.  As everywhere in the world, they are covered with garbled English that seems to owe more to Japan or Hong Kong than Paris or even the West Coast – the bizarre linguistic backwater my daughter calls “Los Angeles Sportboy”.  I had to write down one T-short message I saw – “Global Yard Someone Must Fly On Face Of Mind”, and another, “East London Make Me Thirsty”.  Surely you can’t design textiles whilst being out of your head on hallucinogens ?  The use of Anglo Saxon elsewhere seemed not to know which areas are cool and which are tatty.  I saw a man with a “Newham” T-shirt, named presumably after the poorest borough of London.  “Chesterfield” is a pleasant enough northern town, but needs more than a wonky steeple to justify the elegant and expensive clothes named after it.  And what to make of “Finsbury”, a clothes shop in that most snooty of avenues, the Cours Mirabeau in Aix ? Was it the association with Dolly Kray or Arthur Mullard that offered something trés chic ?  In a more down-market location, underpants on the market were presented in two styles – respectable boxers were “Business” whilst those offering a more racy fit were titled “Trendy”.

I loved the use of verbs that have leapt the Channel – or maybe the Atlantic.  A tough old sailor in a TV drama was told “vous bluffez !” when he announced an outrageous plan (to built a development of “mobile homes” in parkland, as it happens).  Signs at Marseille Airport tell security staff that they must “badgez” to get past an electronic gate.  Cosmetics (and none are more dishonest that French cosmetics – slimming cream, indeed – sold, inevitably, at “Beauty City”) assure you of an anti-age effect – “lifting”.  Invented words are common – what we would call a makeover is “relooking”.  A bar that offered sport on satellite TV advertised “Foot On Streaming”.  At least, I think that’s what it was.  A pop group advertised a concert that was “Best Off”. You can see what they mean, but the title opens a hostage to fortune.

Elsewhere the right words are used, but sometimes to replace perfectly good French ones.  “Ticket” seems to have replaced “billet” in concerts and public transport.  TV and celebrity magazines always refer to “stars” now, not “vedettes”.  Magazines are called ”So Foot” (like our Four Four Two), The Good Life, Men’s Health, Man and so on.  (Whilst we have, you may point out, “Marie Claire” and “Vogue” – showing the international trade in cool. We have buffets, the French have snack-bars). Sometimes the right words are used in the wrong place – such as offering ‘brunch’ all day long.

One aspect that pleased me was that English nowadays seems to be less of a language for yobs.  It used to be that graffiti – which, like dog-shit, is much worse in France than in the UK – was written in English.  It was usually English broken enough for a native speaker to know that it wasn’t being done by visitors, but I have always hoped that the locals knew that.  As I said, it’s less common than it was, though monsieur “Barsick” who left his tag all over Bandol hasn’t helped.  But English, in either its regular format or its handsome but illegitimate frangled child is absolutely everywhere.  I have decided to launch “Perry’s Law”, which states “It is not possible to stand or sit anywhere in urban France without seeing some example of the English language”.  I tested in rigorously during my stay, and only came close to failure twice.  The first time, I was saved by a flyer for a Rock’n’Soul concert stuck to a lamppost, the second time by a big guy overlooking the Arles Bull-Run in a denim shirt that advertised “Original Workmanship”.

Footnote:  None of the above reflects on the success of French companies, by the way, which appear to be a major beneficiary of out-sourcing the UK public sector, whether it’s owning our gas and electric utilities, running assessments on the long term unemployed or picking up our domestic rubbish.  I have a linguistic clue as to why that might be.  When a manager is interviewed on an issue in a French news bulletin, he is called le or la “responsable”.  This seems to me to be a rather better way to refer to someone pulling a big salary to make sure things go OK than calling them a bloody “Chief Executive”

We name names

People are sometimes interested in the derivation and origins of their surnames, even though (given patronymic lineage) it relates to some very minor portion of their heritage.  Your father provides a half of your current DNA, but he got half from his mother, and so on.  As you go back in time, your family linkages spread and spread, which explains why newspapers can prove that Prince Henry’s latest squeeze is in fact ‘distantly’ related to him.  A TV quiz question once asked who was related to King Alfred, and the answer was that, going back that far, almost everybody is.

I had a look at a list of surnames recently.  My puzzle is about patronymic names, and why they are not related to the frequency of male first names.  There are plenty of surnames which do, of course, reflect common names.  Johnson, Harrison, Davidson, Nicholson, Wilson/Williamson and so on.  Dixon and Nixon I guess are re-spellings of Dick and Nick’s progeny.  But others seem out of kilter.  Take the evangelists’ names, presumably reasonably popular in the late Middle Ages when surnames were becoming common.  Johnson, yes, and some Matthewsons even though it is not a very common name: but I have never heard of a Markson or Lukeson in my life.  Jameson seems to rarer than it should be, given the frequency of the name.  Why has Thompson acquired a ‘p’ ? Nicknames and shortenings I can understand, but why is Jackson common, whereas Bilson is rare ?  I imagine the Clarksons came from people who worked as the town clerk, but what was the first name of the father of the first Lawson or Hudson, Simpson or Patterson ? And Gibson ?  Was that Gilbert – which would make you wonder at the shortage of Gilsons – or is a gib some medieval job description ?

My own name – Perry – could have various derivations, but the most common explanation is that it is part of the Pirie, Parry, Pendry bunch, who were sons of a Welshman called Henry or Harry – hence ap Harry, ap Henry and so on.  That’s also where Pritchard, Powell and Prodger came from, and even the Upjohns and Uprichards.

Sexism rears its head here. As elsewhere.  Why don’t we have the ‘daughter’ suffix the way that Icelanders do ? Even matronymics seem rare, though one would have thought, given the death rates in old England, they might have been more common.  There are, after all, some Widdowsons around.  I guess Nelson is the most common matronymic, and there is another with a nautical flavour in Anson.  There’s Megson, too.  And was Mr Allison the son of Alice ?  I have come across the odd Margerison and Elizabethson in my time.  But no Maryson, even though Mary was the most common female name for centuries.

And occupational names.  Why are there so many more Taylors than Farmers ? More Butlers than Weavers ? How come Fletcher is the 156th most common name, whereas Archer is down at 539 (and Bowman further down) – wouldn’t you think it was the other way around ?

Anyway, views welcome, or just log into the various lists and have a play for yourself.  There is also a website where you can see the parts of the country that different surnames are found.  Why are there so many Ronsons by the seaside ?  Why has Middlesbrough got a peak of Cornish names (answer – the iron mines there opened just as Cornish mines were closing) ?  But remember, none of it matters.  Your surname is a minor speck of your past, and what matters is what you do in the present.

Celebrity

There is much to be said about the current cult of celebrity. The expansion of digital media, especially TV channels, creates the need for content, and ‘reality TV’ is one of the easiest ways to generate content.  Think of it – no actors or scriptwriters to pay, no plot to develop, no copyright fees to meet, no need to negotiate fees with sporting authorities.  No need either (breathe it low) for talent.  And reality TV creates its own material for the future: the media version of a perpetual motion machine.  You can put your celebrity onto a panel show, or a cookery show, or a quiz;  have a series of what XXX did next, or audition even more obscure people who want to be XXX’s personal assistant or publicist.  And when the celebrity fouls up, drink, drugs or divorce, they create copy for the tabloids: they are ‘troubled XXX’.  And when they die, they become ‘tragic XXX’.

The point is that celebrities as currently defined are mediocrities. That is what they are.  If they have a minor talent, it is truly minor – they might be politicians who didn’t make it, or musicians who didn’t make it, or actors who didn’t make it.  My wife contrasts celebrities with stars, and that establishes the true nature of current celebrity – in soccer terms, it’s the Premier League v. Johnson Paints Trophy.

So where, you ask me, can I find true human worth at the moment ?  I will tell you.  The obituaries.  Look at recent copies of the Times.  A distinguished naturalist, a life dedicated to preserving snow leopards and cranes.  Mickey Rooney, the generator of mountains of mirth and good fun.  Decorated soldier, wounded in Normandy, goes on to become High Court judge.  The musician who wrote “Guitar Boogie”.  Psychiatrist who worked in Brixton prison.  Relative of Barack Obama who campaigned for the rights of illegal immigrants.  The author of “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole”.  Ok, you’ll find newsworthy people who maybe aren’t historic figures – Peaches Geldof – and those who are but you wish they weren’t – a ‘ruthless’ Chechen warlord.  But generally speaking the obits are generally a surer guide to the contribution made to the universe than anywhere else in the media.  The blessings of the smart-phone mean I can be like Mark Twain: go straight to them when I wake up, and as soon as I realise I’m not in them, I can get on with the day.