Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Vocabulary Lesson Part IV

We Americans are enthusiastic by nature. This fact is evident when you hear us describe things; our everyday vocabulary is bursting at the seams with adjectives and exclamation points! How am I doing today? I am great, fantastic, wonderful. What do I think of this quiche? Oh I think it is delicious, amazing, out of this world.  Do I like this music? Like it? I love it! I think this music is rockin-awesome! As you can see, when the adjectives in the dictionary no longer suffice, we don't hesitate to combine and invent even bigger better ways of expressing ourselves, rockin-awesome being a case in point.

In contrast, the French refrain from the casual use of adjectives to protect these precious words from loosing their impact when they are employed. Cautious use of positive adjectives and measured enthusiasm are two things that take getting used to as an American in France. We easily mistake their lack of enthusiasm for snobbery or indifference, which is actually far from the truth. The French are simply more honest and realistic than we are when describing things. It is true that an amazing quiche is actually rather rare. If a French person finds something that is mediocre, they see no reason to say it is great or even good just to spare your feelings. Instead they will frankly describe the quiche as fine or tell you they have had better; both likely true statements. This is not to say that the French never give out compliments or praise, they just wait until they find something or someone who truly deserves it. When a French person does run across something so extraordinary that it merits a strong adjective then it should be seen as a very special moment indeed that others should pay attention to and the person receiving the praise can fully believe and relish.

While on tour, one of my clients asked me how to translate the word 'great' into French. I paused. I know the literal translation of the word 'great', it is either grand or génial depending on the context. However I did not pass this information along right away, because if I did teach this man how to pronounce génial and set him free to point at things (like his dinner at a restaurant for example) and say géniale while smiling and giving the server a thumbs up, I would in fact being doing this man a disservice. Great is a strong word in French and if used too often or too easily, the person you are trying to compliment will assume you are being disingenuous, that you are mocking them, or that you are a complete fool who can't tell good from garbage. So I told him that the actual translation for great is génial but if he really wants to give a compliment à la française he would be better off saying pas mal, not bad, or one of the following adjectives...


Literal translation: Decent

To be used when an American would say... good, nice, fine, or lovely.

Pas mal

Literal translation: Not Bad

To be used when an American would say... great, wonderful, or very good.

Bon or Bien

Literal translation: Good or Well.

Side note: As a general rule bon is used when describing things that we can taste, touch or smell and bien is used for everything else.

To be used when an American would say... exceptionally good, far exceeds expectations, fantastic, amazing, or awesome/rockin-awesome.

As you can see, in the photo above these boys are enjoying a Monaco (beer and grenadine). Since they are drinking said beverage at a Parisian café,  they have resisted the urge to high-five the bartender and grin with pleasure as they sip their delicious drinks, instead they are making a classic French Face (I will write a whole separate post on that soon) and probably thinking, these drinks are made just like they should be, thus they are pas mal.


Anonymous said...

You know, I could stand to French up my adjectives. I am a staunch over-user of "genial."

Anonymous said...

That was me, posting anonymously by accident. I'd wanted to go back and copy "géniale" from your post, and now look what's happened. Chaos.

Anonymous said...

Growl. Anonymous is Barb Geisler. I don't know what I'm doing wrong. xo