Il n’y a pas le feu au lac! / Keep your hair on!

Come to think of it, English is chock-full of idioms. It’s enough to drive you up the wall if you haven’t the foggiest what anyone is harping on about. I ought to count my blessings that I haven’t been faced with a truckload in French, though if I did it’s all part and parcel of the experience. Takes alot of derring-do to up sticks and ferry off yonder from Blighty, but once you’re off, you’ve just got to get your feet wet and play by ear, haven’t you? Things won’t always be fine and dandy, but there’s no use crying over spilt milk, you’ve just got to bite the bullet, soldier on, and in no time things will be right as rain again.

Idioms are funny little things. They make absolutely no sense within themselves, yet they are the final touch (after accuracy and accent) to truly lending authenticity to one’s speech, and making one appear at home with a language. They can raise an appreciative chuckle or wise nod from a fellow interlocutor who gets it, and completely flummox someone not initiated into the nuances of a language. The sense of many idioms can of course be divined from the context, but knowing how to apply them correctly really adds a touch of je ne sais quoi to someone’s speech.

I naturally don’t know many idiomatic phrases in French, but it is amusing explaining (or trying to explain) English idiomatic phrases to francophones, and vice-versa. I don’t know about French ones, but I do love English idioms; they can be so random, and funny, or just plain bizarre. For example I was going over various ways of saying “dying” – kicked the bucket. Pushing up the daisies. Becoming worm’s meat. Not the most delicate ways to describe a death, perhaps. But why these particular idioms in relation to death? There’s no doubt the phrases idiomatic to every language are often a reflection of a particular country or culture. For example, the phrase “il n’y a pas le feu au lac!” in the title is native to Switzerland, where we have the beautiful lake Léman, and so originally had a special significance for the Swiss, though probably less so for the French, despite a common language.

Don’t even get me started on slang. But where does idiom end and slang begin? The distinction can be an ambiguous one, and slang is basically idiom, though idiom is not always slang.

Naturally, alot of English idiomatic phrases are lost on my non-native English-speaking pals, though I find them slipping out automatically. I found myself telling a Korean that she’d “boss” her test tomorrow. What on earth moved me to think anyone in the room (no Brits) would understand what I meant? That wasn’t even idiomatic, it was rather juvenile slang, and I should have known better! Similarly, conversations need to be paused as French idiomatic phrases are elucidated for me. I have come across some amusing turn of phrases. “Malade!” equates to the English “Sick!” though apparently it has to be said with particular emphasis – “c’était ma-lade!” Putain, though a swear word, has been so frequently used and abused in the French language that it’s become an everyday interjection for everything, good or bad.

I love idioms, and the more archaic the better. I still sometimes find myself discovering new ones in English, and look forward to learning more in both languages. It’s such a fun topic that I might do another post about them one of these days. I’m not dead certain though, so don’t hold your breath…!

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2 thoughts on “Il n’y a pas le feu au lac! / Keep your hair on!

  1. Pingback: Hmm, on second thought… | The Fondue Files

  2. Pingback: The Language Files 5: You are what you speak | The Fondue Files

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