By Clover Carroll
Mardi Gras celebrations are already underway, but how many of us know what the name of this festival means? “Fat (Gras) Tuesday (Mardi)” is a French phrase that refers to the lavish feasting that historically took place the day and night before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. During this six-week period, Christians—especially Catholics—fast to share in Christ’s suffering as they approach the commemoration of his crucifixion. Christians still practice self-denial by giving up various pleasures and luxuries during Lent, which culminates in the joy of resurrection on Easter Sunday—falling this year on March 31.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler” (lessay lay baw\n\ taw\n\ roolay) is a literal translation of the English “Let the good times roll,” used in the Louisiana Cajun culture to express the fun-loving and decadent spirit of Mardi Gras. This culture developed when Canadian French (Acadians) fled British persecution in the mid-18th century and settled in Louisiana, strongly influencing its culture, cuisine, and language.
Myriad other French words and phrases have enlivened our language since the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II to achieve the Norman Conquest of England. During the century of French rule, it became the language of the royal court and upper classes, so that many of our words for fancy food, legal concepts, and classy items are borrowed from French (think of “haute couture” (hote cootoor) for high fashion, or theatres that call the intermission the entr’acte” (ahn-tract), or between the acts).
King William I of England would have been bound by “noblesse oblige” (noh-bless’ oh-bleej, or nobility obliges—the responsibility of the aristocracy to lead by example, do good works, and take care of those less fortunate than they.
With the continued blending of French and English since that time, some words have been so assimilated that we think of them as English words (for example, café or chaise), but other more recent imports retain their French spelling and pronunciation to lend diversity to our melting pot language. These are too numerous to discuss, but I have chosen a few of the more interesting ones. My lame attempts at conveying pronunciation use \n\ to indicate a nasal sound without actually pronouncing the n; many French words end with silent consonants, especially n and s.
Surely our namesake Claudius Crozet, who was born in France before emigrating here at the age of 27, would approve! As a matter of fact, a friend recently informed me that “crozets” are a tasty form of small square pasta used in French cuisine (kwee-zeen), meaning simply cooking, from the French “cuire,” to cook.
As he sailed for America in 1816, his friends might have wished him “bon voyage” (baw\n\ voyahj), good travels. Bon, or good, is a part of many French words, such as bonjour (baw\n\joor), good day, and bonsoir (baw\n\-swah), good evening. Mardi Gras is especially enjoyed by “bons vivants” (baw\n\ veevah\n\, silent s), literally good livers, people who are always cheerful, love to entertain, and live the high life all year long (whether they can afford it or not). Invitations to their soirées (swah-ray, silent s), or evening parties/events, might encourage the recipients to RSVP, an acronym for “répondez s’il vous plaît” (ray-pawn-day seel voo play), literally translated as respond if it please you or, in English idiom, please respond. As you can see, our English verb respond itself derives directly from the French.
One of the most common French words in use today is “sans” (sah\n\, silent s), meaning without. A font is called sans serif when it is without decoration on the letters (e.g. Arial v. Times). “Sans souci” (sah\n\ soo-see) means without worries or carefree; or I might order a sandwich “sans mayo.”
But my all-time favorite French phrase is “joie de vivre” (jwah duh veevruh), the joy of living—a feeling I experience daily and with which I strive to stay in touch. For some reason, the French version sounds so much more debonair (implying gaiety of heart) than the English! The verb “vivre,” to live, also underlies such phrases as “c’est la vie” (say lah vee), that’s life, and “vivre la France!” (veev-ruh lah frah\n\s), or (long) live France! Similar in its energy to joie de vivre is “élan” (ay-lah\n\), literally surge or momentum, used in English to mean verve or enthusiasm. Both teams in the Super Bowl played with great élan, and displayed good “esprit de corps” (ehspree duh core), literally spirit of the whole, best translated as teamwork. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has that “je ne sais quoi” (juh nuh say kwah), literally “I don’t know what” but better translated as “that special something” that makes him so much fun to watch. “Au contraire” (oh caw\n\-trair’), on the contrary! you may say—Colin Kaepernick’s speed and grace made him the man of the hour. Touché (too-shay)—we have touched swords, and it’s a draw!
The French word “laissez” also comes into play in the concept of “laissez faire” capitalism, literally meaning “let (them) make” or “let (them) do,” but idiomatically translated as “let it be.” This expression refers to free market capitalism, an economic environment in which individuals or businesses can conduct transactions free from government intervention, with minimal regulation. Also derived from the verb faire is “fait accompli” (fett akawm-plee), or accomplished act–an action or decision that is finished and done and therefore no longer debatable.
On a further political note, when a small group overthrows the government in a surprise, often violent, move it is called a “coup d’état” (coo day-tah), a blow to the state—for example, when Napoleon overthrew the Directory (post-revolutionary people’s government) in 1799. This is often shortened to “coup” (coo) to refer to more ordinary victories, e.g. “Her being offered that job promotion was quite a coup.” Other French phrases also employ the word “coup,” such as “coup de foudre” (coo duh foo-druh), a lightning strike, or “coup de grace” (coo duh grahs), the final or deathblow—derived from mercy killings of mortally wounded soldiers on the battlefield, hence “blow of grace.”
What is your “raison d’être” (ray-saw\n\ deh-truh), your reason for being? Major French novelist Victor Hugo’s (1802-1885) was surely writing. His “oeuvre” (euv-ruh), or collection of works, includes Ruy Blas, Lucrèce Borgia, and Notre-Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), but his “chef-d’oeuvre” (cheh-deu-vruh, silent f), chief or masterwork, was surely Les Misérables (lay mee-zay-rah-bluh), the destitute or pitiable ones. Valjean’s aria “Bring Him Home,” a tear-jerker if there ever was one, is the “pièce de résistance” (pee-ess’ duh ray-zees-tah\n\s’) of the musical based on this novel— that is, the best part or highlight— which is currently playing in local theaters. Another example might be the showiest piece of music in a concert, a performance that defies (or resists) expectation. Cosette is naïve, that is, innocent and unknowing, when Valjean rescues her from the venal Thénardiers; her naiveté (neye-eev-uh-tay), the state of being innocent, adds to her appeal throughout her life.
Mon dieu (maw\n\ dyeu), my God! I am out of both time and space. Time to say “au revoir” (oh ruh-vwahr), farewell until we meet again. And “merci beaucoup” (mare-see boh-coo), thanks very much for listening to my ramblings!