The American football

I’ve never kept it a secret, but I’ve never been too vocal about it, either: I don’t really care much about sports in general. I don’t hate them, by any means, but I just don’t get the appeal– especially watching sports, and not playing. It’s like this new thing the kids are apparently doing, where they watch videos of other people playing video games. I cannot fathom it.

But I live in Seattle, and last week it was important that I keep even my benign, baffled indifference to myself, because (as you may have heard) my fair city is obligatorily melded into a massive hive-mind which calls itself TWELFTH MAN and emits noises of support from its million mouths whenever the Seahawks are doing their thing, and they did their thing at the highest level in the land on Sunday.

At the same time as the most Super of Bowls was underway, I was looking for something to write about here on– Marc and I are going to start posting again or die trying– and suddenly it occurred to me: a lot of French people are crazy about sports, but probably not so much about US of American football. So whatever coverage of the Super Bowl existed in French was sure to be hilarious, right?

And so began my descent into the rabbit hole of French-language coverage of le football américain.


Some cursory googling took me first to an article in Le Monde: “Super Bowl : l’annus horribilis du football américain“. When’s the last time you saw a Latin phrase in an English-language article about football? That’s what I thought. While the article is less about the big game than a run-down of what a tough (well, éprouvante) year it’s been for the NFL (with some abusive players getting caught, negative cognitive effects suffered by long-time footballers, and racist team names getting called out, to name a few troubles the poor NFL faces), what most surprised me was that I enjoyed reading it.

Gilles Paris, a correspondent situated in Washington (whether city or state, le Monde declines to state), weaves in some turns of phrase that just… well, they’ve got a certain, for lack of a better expression, je ne sais quoi. When he writes, “Roger Goodell a convenu qu’il lui avait fallu faire preuve d’« humilité » au cours de la saison. La machine à cash que continue à être la NFL constitue cependant pour lui une protection plus efficace que celles dont sont bardés les guerriers des pelouses“, I enjoy the dripping sarcasm, the half-anglicism “machine à cash” and its insertion grâce à the object-introducing relative pronoun que, the judicious use of dont. 

So is French just so elegant and refined that it can turn a field of sweating, perma-concussed gladiators into something beautiful? Have I discovered a latent love for American football that only the lens of the French language could unlock?

I don’t think so. I’m sure Gilles (I like to imagine him as a crew-cut, bull-necked dude in a striped black and white shirt and a scarf, speaking English like a French Alabaman and pronouncing his first name “Gil” and rhyming his last name with “Ferris”) is a fine writer, but I’m betting most of my (admittedly dorky) enjoyment of the prose comes from my enjoyment of having learned the language and being able to read about unfamiliar topics in it. Reading more articles, on Le Monde and elsewhere, confirmed this suspicion. 

But ultimately, isn’t that a great reason to learn a language? Learning French opens up so much of the world to you, including some things that were right here all along.

Before I go, I would be remiss in my co-authorly duties if I didn’t update you on the progress of our ongoing efforts to make What The French?! available in Amazon’s Kindle format (for all non-Mac users). So the update is: it’s getting close. I know it’s been getting close for a long time now, but it is currently more close than it was at any of those previous times. We’re sorry about the wait, but we want to make sure we can translate all the iBooks features and functions into the new format.

What “What The French?!” is up to

Ducks in a row

putting our ducks in a row

If you’ve noticed we haven’t been posting much lately, it’s because we’re ignoring you. We’re cruel like that.

Andrew is off in places you’ve never heard of doing linguistic research on languages that sound like something he just made up. Marc is cloistered away in an ivory tower writing agonizing academic twaddle.

But does that mean that we’ve forgotten the angry mob of would-be What The French?! users who have the misfortune of not owning a compatible Apple device? NO! In fact, we have brought in outside help to find a Kindle solution. The Apple authoring tool (iBooks Author) was easy enough to use that we could make the book by ourselves. Meanwhile, getting something into a suitable format for Amazon is a nightmare. But cross your fingers because I’m meeting with the guy (this Tuesday!) who is supposed to help us get this out to you, hopefully by fall.

Stay tuned. We will keep you posted on progress. The next book is also in the works, but we’ll talk about that another time. Now go make like a French person and do nothing for the rest of the month.

Do you even vouvoyer, bro?

It’s one of those tricky things about French that doesn’t automatically become easy just because you study and learn the grammar. The battle between vous and tu is dependent on social factors as well: what’s your social standing? What’s the social standing of the person you’re talking to? How does yours compare with theirs? What’s the context, and how do you feel about that person?

In celebration of French “Ain’t-Goin’-Back-to-Lockup Day” (Bastille Day), the LA Times was kind enough to provide us anglophones with a handy flowchart to help decide whether to use vous or tu:

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 3.26.32 PM

See a much more readable version at

As many comments on that site are quick to point out, things are always more complex than they seem, so this flow chart won’t cover every situation or region. As for the author of this post, I learned French in the south Pacific, especially out in the bush of New Caledonia. There, you use vous to address the police and multiple people, and tu for everyone else; I once tried to vouvoyer an old native man, and he stared at me like I was crazy and asked, “À qui tu parles? J’ai une souris dans ma poche ou quoi?” (No, that is not standard metropolitan French).

Still, check out the chart for the basics, read the comments for fun facts and anecdotes, and keep on learning.

in Paris…

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Meet a chanteur: Georges Brassens

Georges Brassens was like a singing French hybrid of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut.

I mean that both visually:






(From left: Twain, Vonnegut, Brassens)

…as well as in terms of his personality.

He wrote hilarious, brilliant songs about the absurdity of society and human behavior. Like his moustached brethren above, his lyrics show a deep understanding of humanity, not always in a pleasant way, but always meaningful and somehow hopeful. Don’t believe me? Listen to this song. Look up a translation if you have to.

But Brassens not only got pictures with his pipe; his portraits also prominently feature cats:

Georges Brassens  June 23  1960

…is that enough? Are you convinced yet? Georges Brassens rules.



Pardon their French

French usage in anglophone media can range from “pretty respectable” to “was that supposed to be French?” I hope to look at that full range in this mini-series of posts.

Let’s start on a relatively high note:

Sherlock Holmes (2009) casts Robert Downey Jr. as the titular character alongside Jude Law as Dr. Watson. I hope it doesn’t spoil this five year-old movie for you when I say there is fighting involved (albeit often in clever ways), and one of the bad guys is a francophone giant called Dredger. Holmes hears him speak French, and is apparently never one to back down from an excuse to practice his conversation, as you can see a little of in this clip:

Now, the giant, played by real-life huge person Robert Maillet, is a native Canadian French speaker, so his French is fine (the deep voice and the fighting might make it sound slightly different, but it’s authentic). What’s impressive is RDJ’s passable accent and delivery (there’s more than what you see in the above clip) is pretty good, especially considering how difficult it is to act in a foreign language. Plus, there’s always the excuse of British arrogance to excuse any slight accent he might retain; sure, Sherlock would be able to master French, but why bother pandering to their elitist pronunciations?

One semi-goof: the script was written in English, and only later did the director find out that their giant actor was a native French speaker. One piece of dialogue is an unfortunate victim of translation: the giant is supposed to say, “Did you miss me?” with “miss” carrying the double meanings of sentimentality and attack. The problem is, French has the weirdest possible way to express sentimentally missing someone; when the giant says, “Tu m’as manqué?” this carries only the meaning of “Did (your attack) miss me?” and would mean ‘Did I miss you?’ when used with the sentimental meaning. Did the writers/actor choose the right one for the line? Does it really matter? You be the judge.

“Manger ses mots”: a French idiom

manger tes mots

Manger ses mots means to mumble. Another, non-idiomatic way to say it is with the verb marmonner.

112 Gripes (Our friends, the French), part 1

At the end of the second world war, United States forces stationed in France experienced what might be diplomatically called “tensions” with their hosts. It’s not really hard to see why; even in the best of circumstances, different cultural values are going to make life complicated. And then throw in the minor detail of France’s general weariness at having been invaded and occupied, American soldiers’ general post-war fatigue and likely under-reported PTSD, and you have a recipe for a lot of gripes.

But the US military couldn’t let tensions boil over, so they took 112 of these gripes and made a pamphlet, the most effective morale-corrector known to man. The document was circulated in France among enlisted Americans starting in 1945, and you’re in luck: this priceless document has been scanned and is available to read right here.


Here are a couple highlights, in case you were on the fence about clicking on that link (which is a lot of effort, to be fair). I’ll be making editor’s notes in [square brackets], too.

Gripe #20: “The French aren’t friendly.”

Uncle Sam’s rebuttal: “Some Frenchman are; other Frenchmen are not.

     The French as a whole are not as “hail fellow well met” as we Americans are. [‘Cause that’s totally how I greet friends and strangers. Hailing them, and the like.] Neither are the British, the Swedes, the Greeks, the Mexicans.

     Frenchmen don’t get personal or confidential quickly.

     They don’t “open up” as quickly as we do in the States.

     The French are very polite; they are also more formal than we are about personal relationships. (So are the Chinese.) The French respect another person’s privacy, and they like to have their own privacy respected too.

     It is natural for anyone to think the people of another nation are not as friendly as his own people. It’s hard to be friendly in a foreign language. It’s hard to be friendly when you’re hungry, cold, and have gone through six years of war – as the French have. Yet the Americans who came into Normandy, or who came into Paris right after the liberation, still talk about the astonishing outburst of gratitude, generosity and friendliness which the French displayed toward us.

     Back in the States, many of our troops complained that the people in the towns near the training camps were not friendly. People from our South often complain that the people in the North are not friendly. A Texan in Vermont finds New Englanders “cold” and “snobbish”. [As they should be!] Do we then say that all Americans are unfriendly?

     Friendship, said a wise man, lies in this: “To desire the same things and to reject the same things.” [What wise man was that? I’d sure hate to spend time with most of the people that statement describes.] On this basis, the United States has never had a better friend than France.

Gripe #45: “The French don’t bathe.”

     “The French don’t bathe often enough. They can’t. They don’t have real soap. They they had no soap worthy of the name since 1940. The Germans took the soap, for four years. [WWII will forever be remembered as Europe’s war for soap.] That’s a long time.

     The ration for Frenchman today, four months after the war is over, is two cakes of poor ersatz soap per month – 20 grams every two months. Most real soap can only he obtained on the black market, where it costs around 125 francs for 310 grams. [This explanation doesn’t do anything for us in 2014, unfortunately.]

Gripe #53: “The French are primitive. French farmers still wear wooden shoes.” [First of all, how is that a gripe? “I just refuse to occupy the same landmass as people who wear wooden shoes,” said no one ever.]

     “The French farmer is more sensible than you think. The French farmer wears wooden shoes because they insulate his feet against mud and damp much better than leather can. [You know what, as much as I don’t care about wooden shoes, I’m finding the prospect of defending them even less intellectually appealing. And I still don’t see how that makes them primitive.]

     France does not have the very hot summer days and nights we get in the Middle West. The landscape of France is not deforested because for centuries the French have been careful to re-plant the trees they’ve cut down. [Buncha hippies. I knew there was a reason we didn’t like ’em.] And so the rivers of France run deep all year round, and the French soil is cool and moist, and wooden shoes come in mighty handy. The French farmer finds them more practical than leather shoes.”

As fun as it is to see what annoyed Americans about the French in 1945, this pamphlet is also a pretty interesting look at an important time period in the relationship between two countries with a really complicated past. What kind of gripes would you put in a 2014 edition? And what kind would they put in a version about Americans? I’d read that in a heartbeat.

An average French guy explains French culture

I’ve found an “Ask Me Anything” session (AMA) with a friendly Frenchman who explains French culture from his own perspective. The following quotes are edited for length and content, like a TV movie, so be warned if you go to read the source.


Q: Why were all the French folks I encountered in Nice/Antibes/Cannes really nice to me, but then the Parisian ones generally ignored or were a giant [bunch of jerks]? Are they just fed up with Americans visiting Paris vs in the south, things are a bit more laid back and not so crazy?
French Guy (FG): They are known for that. They think France = Paris and everything around is just cows and incest families.But they are like a tribe, if you follow their customs (never smile !) you’ll be one of them.


Q: How do the French feel about the fact that the English mock them relentlessly?

FG: This is an endless cycle, they moke [sic] us, we moke belgian, belgian mokes dutch, etc…
But to be honest, we don’t really care.


Q: Is it true that public sector workers in particular will take massive 2 hour lunches, eating a full meal at a restaurant and then basically doing no work for the rest of the day?

FG: True story. And apparently this makes them sick more often !

Follow-up Q: Heh, so is it just accepted behavior?

FG: I have exaggerated. The firm’s culture between public and private is really different. In a private firm, everything is about performance. In a public firm, it’s almost impossible to be fired and you have no real stress from anyone. They are the most secure jobs of France, but it’s not really easy to have a job here. And you’re less paid btw.

The stinkiest cheese

For as much stereotype-busting as I tend to do on this site, I sometimes have to look at the facts and admit that sometimes, every once in a while, the myths have some truth to them.

As you may have read in the title, it’s true: France has produced the stinkiest variety of cheese. The long-distance gag-reflex-triggering champion. The one cheese to nauseate them all.

According to this 2004 BBC news article, scientists applied their knowledge and tools to the question of the relative smelliness of cheeses, using “an ‘electronic nose’ to analyse the cheese odours, along with a panel of 19 human testers”. Their results showed that decent, normal cheeses like English Cheddar and Parmesan were among the least odorous, while the ultimate stench title belongs to Vieux Boulogne, the soul-crushing odor of which is apparently “created by the beer reacting with enzymes in the cheese”. Yikes.

What’s horrifying is the BBC article’s note that the Vieux Boulogne actually beat another French cheese (Epoisses de Bourgogne) that smells so bad, it’s been banned from being taken on public transport in France. Can you imagine the prolonged problem that was bad enough to cause the French to enact actual legislation to put an end to it?

It may look tasty, but the whole bottle of wine is necessary to forget the horror of just smelling this demonic dairy product.

Case closed. The French can and do make some stinky cheeses.

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