"" THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: A bit of je-ne-sais-quoi...


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Monday, 28 July 2008

A bit of je-ne-sais-quoi...

ENGLAND, Scotland and France are neighbouring countries that have fought wars as allies and as enemies for over a thousand years. As a result of this close acquaintance, there is a considerable number of French phrases that survive intact in common English.

We take a look at some of the popular ones.

1. Je-ne-sais-quoi
Literally, “I don’t know what”.

Pronounced “Zhuh Nuh Say Kwa”, this phrase is often used to describe women who are very well dressed and in addition have a mysterious elegance, charm or other type of personal appeal.

Oddly enough, this phrase is also used in some modern novels to signify general ignorance. However, the phrase “Je ne sais pas” meaning “I don’t know” would be more appropriate.

Example: Linda and Lucy wear the same outfit but Linda has that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes her stunning whereas Lucy is just very well dressed.

2. Joie de vivre
Literally, “love of life”.

Pronounced “zhwa de vee-vre”, this phrase is used to describe people or animals who are extremely enthusiastic or exuberant.

The expression “party animal” is also a pretty close synonym to describe the sheer fun and merriment alluded to by this phrase.

Example: Johan’s joie de vivre is so infectious, he can liven up the most boring party.

3. Raison d’être
Literally, “reason for being”.

Pronounced “ray-zon det-ruh”. Also translated as “justification for existence”, this phrase is popular with historians who are trying to explain how certain rules, institutions or philosophies came into being.

It’s also used by biographers to make clear how their subjects thought about themselves or their roles.

Example: Mother Theresa’s raison d’être was to fight poverty.

4. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
Literally, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

Pronounced “Plu sa shonj, plu say la mem showz”, this expression is often shortened to “plus ça change”.

Agatha Christie fans will recognise this instantly as one of her favourite expressions used by her hero detective Hercule Poirot. It’s also used fairly often by sports writers lamenting continuing poor performances by their favourite clubs.

Example: The football club changed their manager and their accountant but plus ça change ?

5. Nom de nom
Literally, “name of a name”.

Pronounced “nom duh nom”, this extremely mild oath is an old euphemism for the expression “nom de Dieu” which means “In God’s name”.

It appears very often in English novels with French characters, together with another mild oath, “Zut alors”, pronounced “Zeut ah lor”, which means “botheration”, and “Sacre bleu!” pronounced “suck-ruh bluh” which means “Holy God!”.

Example: The French count raised his eyebrows, “Nom de nom! I can hardly believe it!”

6. Nom de plume
Literally, “pen name”.

Pronounced “nom duh plu-m”, this is used to describe an author’s pseudonym.

There’s a synonymous phrase “nom de guerre”, where the last word is pronounced “gehr” and means “war”, which can also refer to a false name taken by a suitor who courts someone via anonymous love letters, a spy who wants to remain anonymous, or a fighter during a war.

Example: Daniel Handler’s nom de plume is Lemony Snicket.

7. Noblesse oblige
Literally, “Nobility obliges”.

Pronounced “Noe-bless oh-bleesh”, this catchphrase is used to describe the honourable behaviour, duties and responsibilities that are part and parcel of occupying a high rank.

In novels, it is often used by aristocrats complaining that such social responsibility is something the “nouveau riche”, pronounced “noo-voe reesh”, or newly rich, often lack!

Example: The President enjoys many privileges but the post also comes with noblesse oblige.

8. Mot juste
Literally, “right word”.

Pronounced “moe zhoost”, this little phrase is very popular with TV comedy characters Frasier and Niles Crane. With the Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition listing over 600,000 definitions, and Websters estimating that about 25,000 words are added to the language each year, there should be plenty of scope for finding a phrase that describes precisely what you mean for every occasion!

Example: The restaurant critic strove to find the mot juste to describe his opinion of the limp salad leaves drenched in vilely sweet dressing.

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