French expressions and their English counterparts

“Battre froid,” or “giving someone the cold shoulder”

We catch up with Grenoble-based writer Thora van Male to discuss her forthcoming book, Quand les cochons sauront voler, on French idioms and their English equivalents. 

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Grenoble Life: So tell us about your flying pigs, Thora.

Thora van Male: It’s a book that puts French and English idiomatic expressions side by side, giving a historical explanation of each, and pointing out the similarities and distinctions. For example, our “dressed up to the nines” and the French être sur son trente-et-un; or our “high and dry” and the French le bec dans l’eau; or, as the title of the book conveys, “when pigs fly” and quand les poules auront des dents. The starting point is always the French expression (almost 250 of them).

So often there is a story — apocryphal or factual — behind these expressions, and beyond the curiosities of the ways French and English put their language into images, the anecdotes behind them are often fascinating.

GL: What inspired you to write it?

Thora: Well, these last few years, I have been working quite a lot on the links between English and French …

GL: Your last book, Liaisons généreuses was about that exactly …

Thora: Yes it was. But there, the focus was on all that English owes to French. Whereas here, the two languages are on an equal footing. What I wanted to do was more than mere lists, which already exist in numerous books, and I wanted to go beyond the pleasantly ludicrous result of translating these expressions word for word (remember Sky, my husband!?).

Another thing I had in mind was that for speakers of both French and English, it is easier to remember the idiomatic expression in the other language if you know the story behind it.

GL: It is true, though, isn’t it, that some expressions just don’t have an equivalent in the other language?

Thora: Yes it is, and I had to exclude those expressions. For example, the French se serrer la cuillère or the English “five o’clock shadow”.

GL: How did you research the origins of all the expression and how long did it take you?

Thora: That was the fun part. The whole thing took about a year of working pretty much every day. I used books such as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, to start out with, and of course numerous other publications devoted solely to idiomatic expressions, in both languages. Otherwise, I consulted Alain Rey and Sophie Chantreau’s Dictionnaire d’expressions et locutions and Rey’s Dictionnaire historique. The Oxford English Dictionary, the 20-volume one, was practically my “bible”: the online version, though expensive, was an absolute goldmine. In addition, I found a few websites that focus on idioms in either French or English, and they were helpful too.

GL: Are there any general tendencies about idioms in French that set them apart from their English counterparts, or vice versa? Or rather, how is each culture distinctively reflected in these expressions?

Thora: A very interesting question. One thing that became clear to me as I worked on the book was how many English idioms find their source in the Bible. There are some French ones that come from the Bible too, but not nearly as many. And this cannot be explained by the separation of Church and State in France in 1905, since the expressions are mostly much older than that. You would even expect — or at least I would even have expected — French to have more Biblical allusions than English. It would seem that the King James version of the Bible really left its mark on English. A few examples: “a little bird told me” (Ecclesiastes 10:20), “blow your own horn” (Matthew 6:5), “a fly in the ointment” (Eccliastes 10:1). And there are many more.

Speaking of sources, innumerable English idioms go back to Shakespeare.

GL: That is true of so much of modern English, isn’t it?

Thora: It certainly is, and the idioms are no exception. For example “something rotten in the state of Denmark” (Hamlet), “lay it on with a trowel” (As You Like It), “dog-weary” (The Taming of the Shrew), “in a pickle” (The Tempest), to name a few. In French, it is perhaps La Fontaine whose contributions could be considered as among the most numerous; but as you know, La Fontaine’s fables often go back to Aesop and other fabulists.

Though I have heard it said that English idioms are primitive and concrete while French ones are more intellectual and abstract, this doesn’t seem to be fully borne out by my experience so far. It would appear to go both ways. Jusqu’à ce que mort s’en suive gives you “until I’m blue in the face”; bayer aux corneilles is “catch flies”; tenir quelqu’un à sa merci for “have someone over a barrel”; mal aux cheveux pour “hangover”. Maybe a bit more abstraction on the French side, and a slightly more sophisticated cultural level, on occasion.

It is true, however, that French idioms may refer more directly to classical mythology and historical events than English ones do: il se croit sorti de la cuisse de Jupiter for “he thinks he’s the bee’s knees”. Or tomber de Charybde en Scylla for “out of the frying pan into the fire.” And aller à Canossa for “eat humble pie.”

GL: Are there a lot of idioms that are pretty much identical in both languages?

Thora: Not all that many, but there are. And of course those ones are not in the book.

GL: Can you give us a few examples?

Thora: Tourner casaque for a “turncoat”; partir du bon pied for “get off on the right foot”; or monter sur ses grands chevaux for “get on your high horse”. Often the English idiom comes from the French, or they both come from Latin.

GL: Who did all the lovely illustrations in the book?

Thora: I’d love to say “I did,” and in a way that is true. No no, I didn’t do the artwork, but getting it together was a huge challenge. The principle was one image per chapter (almost 250, right!), and each image had to be in the public domain (i.e. the artist has to have been dead for 70 years). Initially, I thought that all my old dictionaries would be a good source, but I quickly realized that lexicographical illustrations are too stiff: they are often actually still lifes. But the expressions I was writing about were full of drama and the gay pageant of life. So I started acquiring XIXth century illustrated books for young people: L’Écolier illustré, The Girl’s Own Annual, The Boy’s Own Annual, and Punch, mostly from the 1880s and 1890s.

But getting the books didn’t solve the problem of getting the “right” illustration for each of the idioms. I had started out writing my chapters and then looking for illustrations. That was the wrong approach: sometimes I had to leaf through ten books to find something suitable. So I reversed the process, and did not write until I had found a suitable illustration. I spent hours and hours leafing through those old books. I would note down the page numbers of the various possibilities, and only when the whole book was written did I actually choose the best illustrations and do the scans (and Photoshopping). Each illustration in the book represents, on average, about an hour of my time!

GL: A good investment, to be sure. And since the illustration corresponds in some cases to the English expression and sometimes to the French one, the reader can have fun trying to decode them.

Thora: Right you are. The French reader, in particular, has to work out the raison d’être of the picture of two men and their dogs at Là où le roi va seul or that of a ship with flying colours for réussir haut la main.

GL: In your experience as an English teacher, what problems do idioms pose for learners of English? Do you think they should be embraced or avoided in the classroom?

Thora: That’s a hard one. Native speakers use idioms so much that someone learning the language needs at the very least to understand them. So the answer is clearly Yes, students of English should learn the most commonly used ones. But many’s the slip twist cup and lip: so often students learn these idioms and then overuse them. As a teacher of English, you really don’t want sentences like: “In a nutshell, the young men from the upper crust thumbed their noses at society and sowed their wild oats; then they walked down the aisle and ruled the roost.” At least the sentence I have just invented for you means something. But as I have found out through the experience of learning French, when you are learning an idiom in another language you need to use it incorrectly several times before you actually get it right. Which means that sometimes you are incomprehensible.

My advice to students writing essays is no more than one idiom per page, and no clichés. A cliché is nothing more, really, than an overused idiom. But I am not going to give you a lecture!

GL: I imagine that English idioms also vary from one Anglophone country to another. How have you tackled that in the book?

Thora: That is something I had to be careful about. My own language background is Canadian, from spending my formative years in British Columbia. But all these years in France and my acquaintance with many speakers of British English have changed my idiolect somewhat. So I was specially attentive in the book to expressions that might have different meanings in the US and the UK, or that might not exist on one side of the Atlantic. For example, I made it clear that “come a cropper for se casser la figure is British (and a bit old-fashioned). Similarly that “heebie-jeebies” is more American, and “collywobbles” more British for avoir les jetons, la frousse, les chocottes; or that Brits wouldn’t touch something with a barge-pole whereas North Americans wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

GL: Will you be doing any talks or readings about the book and/or your research in or around Grenoble in the near future?

Thora: For the moment, nothing is fixed. In fact, the book won’t even be available in bookstores until November 13th. The Grenoble Oxford twinning association asked me to speak about Liaisons généreuses when it came out. They may ask me back.

GL: The last time we spoke to you, you had just published that book (Les Liaisons généreuses – l’apport du français à la langue anglaise). How did it go down?

Thora: Well, I don’t write bestsellers, you know! But it did go over quite well. I was specially honoured when the Académie française awarded me a prize for it: le prix Georges Dumézil. Part of the award included spending an afternoon at the Académie among the Immortels. That was quite an experience.

GL: Any more projects in the pipeline? What would you like to write about next?

Thora: I’ve already done a fair bit of research on compared similes; you know the kind of thing: “as white as a sheet” for blanc comme un cachet d’aspirine, as “proud as a peacock” for fier comme Artaban, and so on. And I’ve also worked on compared proverbs. But I wouldn’t mind delving deeper into the idioms. It is truly fascinating, and I am far from the end of my tether (je suis loin d’être au bout du rouleau)!