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I’ll be the first to say that my French is pretty hopeless.  This is partially due to a tin ear, to being told continually as a child that no-one in my family had ever mastered French (despite my father studying it at Oxford, but according to my mother that didn’t count), laziness and acute self-consciousness which makes me freeze if I think there’s any chance of making a mistake.  Which is just about every time I try anything beyond, ‘une baguette s’il vous plait.’

The real minefields are with faux amis – the words that look like they should mean the same thing in both languages but don’t.  The most notorious, of course, is préservatif.  You don’t find préservatifs in jam, wine or bread (those are conservateurs), you’ll find them alongside the till in packs of 12 (the French are ever hopeful) in large, very large and extra large sizes.  Fortunately this is a mistake I’ve avoided making, though a lot of people claim they have, including an Australian winemaker friend who told a group of visiting French wine buffs that the wine he was making was practically bio and had no préservatifs in it.  He was asked if Australian wine often contained condoms.

Not quite so embarrassing but still capable of making you look like a right linguistic prat are the more insidious words that almost mean the same thing but not quite; sensible means sensitive, not down to earth or practical, demander is just to ask and doesn’t have the insistant connotation that it does in English, assumer means to take on and not to presume, a librarie is a bookshop, the place you go to borrow books is a  bibliothèque and if you were to describe someone as spécial you’re saying that they’re a bit odd, not that they’re talented.

The unwary can get badly tripped up by words that sound quite alike, my brother took a business colleague along to a meeting with the bank to discuss a loan and expansively introduced his companion as an ‘ancienne entraineur de hippopotome‘.  Surprisingly enough the bank manager had no qualms about lending money to a former hippopotamus trainer rather than the racehorse trainer (entraineur hippique) he’d been expecting to meet.

The opportunities for linguistic mishaps by mispronunciation are legion.  Susie from Desperate Anglo Housewives Bordeaux did a wonderful post (which I can’t find sadly) on pronouncing words just slightly wrong, one was asking the fishmonger if she could cook the fish she’d just bought in a frying pan.  He looked rather surprised and she realised that instead of saying ‘poêle‘ she’d said ‘poil’, thus asking if she could cook it in the nude. It really doesn’t matter much mixing up your jaunes and jeunes, or your chevaux and cheveux, if you announce you’re going to saddle up your hair people will probably know what you mean , but cou, queue and cul are a different matter.  I’ve never wanted to stuff a duck’s neck but I know that even if I get a desperate urge to do so the chances are nil because I don’t dare risk asking the nice lady in the butchers if I can have a duck’s arse.  Likewise when I took the dog to the vet I merely pointed at his neck to show where he’d hurt himself (he still had the indignity of having a thermometer shoved up his cul though).

This weekend I was in a bakery I don’t usually go to and stacked up on the counter was a pile of the most delicious looking dark chocolate bread.  Needless to say they didn’t call it anything simple like pain chcolat, it was pain cocao. I was halfway through asking for one from someone who looked disconcertingly like the gym teacher at school who’d sigh every time I tried to walk along the upturned bench, when I realised I wasn’t going to get past the a to the o.  Yes, I asked for pain cacca, poo bread.

As part of the blog hop I’m offering to send a copy of the recipe for my chocolate salami (no cacao or difficult to say words in it) to anyone who’d like it.  I’ll say modestly that it’s very good indeed, the last time I made it I was asked for the recipe by a keen French cook…  Just leave a comment below.

Do visit the other blogs which are taking part in the expat blog hop:

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