Myths and Misconceptions about the French (and France)
and Where (at least) Some of Them Come From
Paris! France! Ooh-là-là! The most visited country in the world must have done something right to merit that kind of attention. And of course it has. But there are many other things that it hasn’t done-or kind of does but not in the way we think-or used to do but doesn’t any more. Détrompez-vous! (roughly: Think again!), by checking out the following (incomplete) list.
- The first misconception is that the French say “Oooooooh-là-là”! Oo is pronounced “oh” in French (alcool [alcohol], for instance, sounds like “al-cole,” not “al-cool”), so at worst the expression should be transcribed and pronounced as “Oh-là-là” and at best not transcribed or pronounced at all, as it’s rather passé.
Some similar French and English expressions have totally different meanings: Anglophones say “There, there” (là, là) when seeking to comfort. Francophones include those words when expressing surprise or concern…Some similar French and English idioms convey the same meaning: vache à lait (literally: milk cow) = “cash cow.”…Some French and English sayings communicate the same concept via dissimilar words: To have other chats à fouetter (cats to whip) = “to have other fish to fry,” with native speakers of both languages often guilty of direct translation, leaving Anglophones wondering why their neighbors would be sadistic enough to thrash house pets and Francophones impatient at having to hear their officemates’ dinner plans.
- French kiss, French tickler, Gay Paree lingerie shop, Paris Nights perfume, Passion Paris lipstick, French Folly scented candles. That’s because the French are the sexiest people in the world, right? Wrong. It’s not that the French are not sexy. It’s just that they’re not necessarily more or less sexy than Yugoslavians, or Mongolians, or Americans, or…
So where did this idea-that-launched-a-thousand-brand-names come from? From one day. One day in the 4.5 billion years that Earth has been hanging around the Solar System: August 25, 1944, when France was liberated from Nazi control. As the French 2nd Armored Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division rolled into town, Parisians of all ages and occupations danced wildly in the streets; GIs grabbed women into their arms and curved them into deep tangoesque backbends, primed for a kiss; articles of clothing (including the occasional female undergarment) flew into the air. And this seemingly lascivious scene was caught on newsreel footage to be rushed across the seas and shown in movie theaters throughout the Allied countries. Can we blame the farmer in Oklahoma, the welder in Liverpool, the clerk in Brisbane, the housewife in Auckland, the high-schooler in Toronto for thinking this was how French folks lived all the time?
- Saying that every French woman walks around looking like she just stepped off the cover of Vogue is like saying that every American woman-Alaskan-tundra denizens included-walks around in an Armani business suit, carrying a Gucci briefcase, adhering to a bloodpact with herself never to breed and running a dot.com (with rising stock!). (Or, if you prefer, that every American woman-mid-town Manhattanites included-walks around in Wal-Mart jeans, lugging the latest in the series of newborns, adhering to a bloodpact with herself to look no farther for the ideal life and running the church hoagie-sale benefit.)
The pockets of posh could probably squeeze into less than a dozen square miles when factored out of the 6th, 7th, 16th and a handful of other Parisian arrondissements; the yacht clubs of Nice, Cannes and Deauville (the latter of which was called the 21starrondissement of Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, when many vacationers headed there from the capital); and the après-ski bistros of Courcheval. In the other 211,200 (out of 211,208) square miles of the realm, everyone looks more or less like you and me. Like you and me, however, on way less money (if you’re in Paris on a budget the best place to buy clothes is: in another country) and way less stuff. Somehow, a non-French woman in a beltless straight black skirt, a simple white blouse and no jewelry/no make-up/no rhinestone bored into her pinky-nail looks like she fell victim to amnesia in the middle of getting dressed and walked out before she was one-tenth finished; a French woman similarly attired looks ravishing.
- For those who think that France has been the home to gourmet cooking since the first Gallic amoeba slithered toward a three-star molecule on the ocean floor, we have one word (well, two): the fork. Pre-fork France was also supposedly pre-artichoke/broccoli/spinach/truffles/veal/puff-pastry/cake/sherbet/etc. France-all of which changed when Catherine de Medici arrived for her 1533 wedding (at the age of 14!) to the future Henry II, bringing from Italy cooks, pastry chefs, distillers, strict dining etiquette and that newfangled utensil with tines. (Don’t ask what they used before that.)
- The French flag is not “red, white and blue.” It’s “blue, white and red.” That’s the left-to-right order in which the colors appear and you’d be well advised not to let your French pals catch you saying it any other way!
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.