The English language has efficiently borrowed a number of words and phrases from the French, including dossier, déjà vu, liaison and bourgeois. Our own words—file? dreamy flashback? relationship? hopelessly middle class?—somehow fail to embody the subtlety and profundity of their French equivalents; indeed, they lack a certain "je ne sais quoi".
These elegant French infusions follow something of a pattern. The English language lacks its own versions of risqué, laissez-faire, and sommelier—words that reflect French culture in a way that so-called "soul food" evokes the American south.
Take écoeurant, for example. Often understood as the French version of the English word "nauseating", écoeurant is an adjective that describes the way one feels when one about to (or wants to) vomit. The subtle difference between the two, however, lies in the cause of the nausea. Whereas "nauseating" can refer to any sensation that involves nausea, écoeurant describes a type of nausea caused by experiencing too much of something—a creamy dessert, a powerful odour, an obsequious personality. You can have nauseating hunger pangs, but you certainly cannot have a hunger that is écoeurant.
Other singular words include terroir (basically, "the land", but specifically the climate, type of soil and topography of a certain region, and especially the way these factors might influence the production of wine); chartreuse, a vibrant green-yellow hue that takes its name from a particular type of liqueur created in France during the 18th century; and another colour, taupe, a greyish-brown hue, which is actually the French word for mole (the burrowing rodent).
Yet for all its linguistic subtleties (which, tellingly, are mostly concerned with either food or the land), French is without a doubt less specific than English. With more words than any other language, English offers the most choice when it comes to nuance. Was the movie cheesy, tacky or corny? Did you want something affordable, inexpensive or downright cheap? Is he a fussy baby, or just a bit picky?
These are all words and phrases that do not have precise equivalents in French. From a country that has a single word to describe an optimistic yet uninformed outlook (naïve), this might be surprising. But in order to tell someone in French that you think "The Three Stooges" was a bit cheesy, you would have to say that they are of mauvaise qualité (poor quality) or moche (ghastly or distasteful), words that do not exactly describe the way you might feel. Likewise, prices in France are described in terms of how cher (dear) they are to the buyer. Something cheap is moins cher (less dear), while something expensive is plus or très cher (more or very dear). Picky eaters of all types, baby or not, are referred to as difficile (difficult).
So how to measure nuances meaning? How does one sense the difference, subtle as it is, between "obvious" and "evident", when there is only one French word for both (évident)? The relatively limited vocabulary of the French language forces its speakers to personally interpret each generously defined word or phrase each time it is used. Tone and context become paramount; words can seem layered, achieving levels of meaning that English words simply do not. English-speakers have a term for some of what they are missing, of course: the double entendre.
~ RACHEL SMUCKER
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