Saturday, June 16, 2012

Phun Phrench Phrases

I used to teach French at UC Berkeley, and still keep very much up with the doings of la francophonie.    And now, inspired by the example of my Latinist colleague Dr. Massey, who has begun teaching Latin to a grateful planet via YouTube,  I’ll begin what might turn into a series, sharing interesting turns of phrase as they turn up in the daily press.   All just in fun -- it won’t be on the test.

(1)  aux abonnés absents

À trois jours d'élections à haut risque en Grèce, les marchés sont fébriles, les taux d'emprunt de l'Espagne et de l'Italie s'envolent, mais l'Europe est aux abonnés absents, paralysée par une opposition frontale entre Paris et Berlin.
-- Le Figaro, 15 juin 2012

The literal reference of abbonés absents is to people who go off on vacation and arrange for an answering service to handle their calls.   One suspects that, in this age of cellphones, that custom has gone into decline,  but the phrase remains, trim and alliterative, available for metaphorical use.  The allusion here is to the political shilly-shallying going on as the European financial crisis darkens and deepens;  an English phrase to refer thus wryly to leaders who should have led, but fled instead, could be “Among the missing.”  Or, to stick with the telephonic imagery, "Destiny is calling, but the EU doesn't pick up."

As for Among the missing, it has what is semantically a formal antonym, but which, pragmatically and humoristically, goes off at quite another angle:   Among those present.   This phrase does not by any means denote those who, unlike those Among the Missing, did step up to the plate and do their duty.  Rather it refers (principally in British English)  to wallflowers, wannabes, and also-rans.   The phrase derives from society-column write-ups of this or that bash, headlining the principle celebrities and then tacking on as an afterthought the list of nobodies who were also Among those Present.
P.G.Wodehouse was especially fond of this phrase, which appears in almost every one of his comic novels.  As,
 “Psmith's number is up – As a reformer he is merely among those present.”
-- Psmith in the City (1910)

(2)  victimitude

Ségolène Royal, «mal placée pour jouer la victimitude»
-- Le Figaro, 16 juin 2012

Ségolène Royal was the principal left-leaning candidate for the French presidency, last time around;  in that country, her sordid extramarital frolics do not disqualify her from the nation’s highest office.   She’s the ex-mistress of the current French president, and “victim” (as she would have it) of a very public cat-fight launched by that gentleman’s current mistress.  Or something like that.   For details, consult the gutter press.
Anyhow, that’s a very nice word:  Victimitude.   We should start using it forthwith  in English, where it will make a nice companion to our other favorite word, Truthitude (our improved, 2.0 version of the previous coinage truthiness).  Victimitude and Truthitude are the current twin pillars on which our social values are based.

(3) Câlinothérapie

Câlinothérapie à dos de cétacé
À Eilat, en Israël, un parc marin propose des stages pour les enfants ayant des troubles du comportement.
-- Le Figaro, 16 juin 2012

Tricky  to translate -- I would have said “hug treatments” or the like, but in this case it refers to young autists riding on porpoises at a water-park (now there’s a tourist attraction).  Anyhow, no translation gives a sense of the Sitz im Sprechen of the French coinage -- half erudite, half playful (exactly the tone we aim for on this site).  For French has some real mouthfillers in semitechnical areas, and câlinothérapie plays nicely with these:  nappe phréatique ‘ground water’; parc éolien ‘wind farm’; énergie houlomotrice ‘wave power’.

Etymologically, the word is a hippogriff, its front-end informal (câlin with its coaxing-cajoling a-vélaire), the back-end primly Greek (the “th” grapheme lending a most unGallic air).

Pour d’autres friandises
de la confiserie 
du docteur Justice,

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