The light has grown dim, making it difficult to read, and I’m developing a hunchback from leaning over the dictionary for the last two hours. But none of it matters—nothing matters!—for I am in love. In love, completely, with French.
It was not always this way. Early in our relationship, French let me down. The language’s reputation for romance faded a bit at the doctor’s office in Marrakesh where I learned that, outside of movies of spies and lovers, mysterious words like dossier and rendez-vous actually have mundane meanings like “medical file” and “appointment” for, say, a colonoscopy. And then, as in all relationships, there is the work involved: learning how to say an, en and un in just the right nasal tone, and trying to understand French’s frequent refusal to pronounce much of the alphabet.
But no language is perfect, and somewhere between French’s mildly annoying penchant for excessive lettering and my fear of commitment to learning tenses is pure rapture: French can do no wrong; she is a language-lover’s dream. There are, for example, the words and expressions that, by resembling English, give clues to their meaning. C’est grave means “this is serious.” (Anything with the word “grave” can’t be good.) Plein de sentiment, literally “full of sentiment,” is soulful. Excursionniste means “day-tripper.” And an auto-stoppeur—can you guess? (See answer below.)
I love French’s logic in words like vâche pie. Vâche is cow, and pie is magpie, a black and white bird. So, clearly, vâche pie is black and white cow. Chauve-souris translates as “bald mouse,” meaning “bat.” Have you ever almost lost a hand to a window slamming shut? That was likely a brush with a sash window, or a fenêtre à guillotine. And I love when French is illogical, too. Mon petit chou, literally “my little cabbage,” is an endearment that means “my sweetheart.”
Then there is the just plain lovely. Imagine a language that names its in-laws with the words “beautiful” and “handsome.” In French, daughter-in-law is belle-fille (beautiful daughter), and father-in-law, beau-père (handsome father). All the in-laws, or belles-familles, are denoted by either belle or beau. What could “path of iron” be? A railroad, of course, chemin de fer. I will never look at train tracks in the same way again. As my walk continues through the enchanted forest that is the French dictionary, I find there is a word for a chair by the fire: chauffeuse. I say that’s très civilized. But perhaps my favorite is “to be overjoyed,” which is najer dans le bonheur and literally means “to swim in happiness.”
While the meanings of French words are a joy to discover, it is the way French sounds that makes you stick it out when the going gets tough. The most delicious words start with “ch,” pronounced “sh.” In an effort to simultaneously savor as many of these words as possible, I have composed the following sentence:
En ma chemise de nuit, je chemine le chemin et chante de chantilly, chandelles et chapelures aux chanterelles, chardons et chênes chantoyants.
Which, in my fledgling French, might mean “In my nightdress, I walk along the path and sing of cream, candles and breadcrumbs to the shimmering mushrooms, thistles and oaks.”
I know. But everything makes sense when you’re in love.