There‘s a French word for it
Living outside France allows me to return to my country of birth with a foreigner’s sensitivity to quaint language developments there. The French proclivity for multisyllabic concepts is unmatched. If you can think of a concept, there’s a French word for it.
One of my favorites is primo-accédant, which refers to people who buy real estate property for the first time (not necessarily primo real estate, I might add). How many other languages have coined a term for such a person? French people also have a word for people who have multiple banking relationships, yielding the pentasyllabic multi-bancarisé. Multi-bancarisé is opposed to mono-bancarisé when they have only one bank. As for sex, however, it turns out the French prefer multiple relationships, yielding a sizable segment of primo-accédants multibancarisés for whose attention bankers fight. I am told from admittedly less than reliable sources that the new French President François Hollande was heard warming up for his victory speech at La Bastille by repeating primo-accédant multibancarisé a hundred times at fast pace .
“Why would one do simple when one can do complicated”, was the wisdom offered by an old French TV cartoon called Les Shadoks. This exemplifies French people’s approach to language. A problem used to be un problème, but has now migrated to une problématique, with sounds like a much larger headache (moving from a masculine to a feminine also appropriately connotes of greater complexity). It was appropriately used by the hotel maintenance staff at my Paris hotel this week to describe a leaky toilet in my room (la problématique de la chasse d’eau). Things also used to last (elles durent), but they now hyper-last (elles perdurent), which, best I can see, is the new watered-down definition of eternity given the increased secularism of France. Any kind of work-related injury used to be commonly referred to as un accident du travail (a work accident), but employers are now invited to prevent troubles musculo-squelettiques. As a modest French employer, I have spent many sleepless nights imagining employee body parts flying all over the hexagone and being held responsible for such human implosion.
The political language of the French presidential campaign has also co-created its share of new words, most of them quite divisive. Islamophobie, while elegantly polysyllabic, refers to the sad reality of immigration-related tension and the racist feelings it engenders. I even heard an interview on television where a young woman referred to herself as an anti-islamophobe (that’s seven syllables if you’re counting), which, she explained, is a lot stronger than being an islamophile. The presidential candidates have spent a lot of time trying to diaboliser their opponents (paint the other guy into a devil), while taxing the other one of angélisme, the art of attributing angel-like feelings to people who should clearly be diabolisés instead. There is a trend toward the désacralisation of everything (literally take the sacramental portion out things), most notably marriage, paying taxes and les institutions.
The French are also world-class when it comes to metaphoric expressions. When they mean to convey “let’s not worry about that”, hip French people like to say “on ne va pas se mettre la rate au court-bouillon”, which literally translated means something like “let us not make spleen soup out of it”. In case you wondered about ingredients in cuisine nouvelle. Another popular expression to convey “it’s not even close” is “y’a pas photo”, literally “there is no need for a photo-finish on this one”. This one appears to have originated with horse racing, and the celebrated tiercé et quarté du dimanche. French people used to eat horses in boucheries chevalines, but the trend is clearly toward less eating and more betting. Some uncharitable commentators have referred to the new French President François Hollande as “il n’a pas fait l’école du rire” (literally, “he did not graduate from laughing school”), because of his serious demeanor. I can’t wait for the slap fest at the next sommet franco-allemand with Angela Merkel. given her own barrel of laugh approach to things.
While I increasingly need an interpreter to decipher those new expressions, a few concepts have remained reassuringly the same (ils ont perduré, as it were). The dame pipi, still available at most French railroad stations in Paris, is still à son poste, collecting coins before letting you faire vos besoins (attend to your needs, or do your business). For good measure, the French have added some automation equipment (the French are big on infrastructure, particularly when it comes to bathrooms and fast trains), such that you now not only have to produce at least 50 centimes d’euro (or risk the wrath of madame pipi in a surprisingly polyglot tirade), but also have to jump turnstiles with suitcases, encouraged by a crowd of lookers-on inspired by the popular TV game show Fort Boyard. Engineers at the French railroad organization SNCF were clearly never told that train travelers use suitcases, in full illustration of the motto of the French elite engineering school Polytechnique which stipulates: we know some things works in practice, but do they work in theory?
Of course my timing is particularly bad here. The French are at a serious juncture in their political history, having just elected François Hollande to become Président de la République Française, and here I am, participating already in his désacralisation and his diabolisation. Cher Monsieur le Président, I present you with my best wishes in addressing la problématique of France, such that my former country can perdurer, with a special thought for the primo-accédants, whether of the monobancarisé or the multibancarisé variety, and whether they are prone to troubles musculo-squelettiques or not. Vive la République. Vive la France.