A new dictionary that seeks to catch “the hidden cultural dimensions of French”A few weeks back in the House of Commons David Cameron put down an uppity woman Labour MP with the words “Calm down, dear”. A French reader of the English press may have seen this as simply toffish sexist condescension; for many Brits, of course, it was recognisable as a slogan used by Michael Winner in one of his TV insurance commercials and that lent an additional dimension to the words.
As Michael Mould, compiler of The Routledge Dictionary of Cultural References in Modern French (UK: Routledge), points out, French, and especially that we find in the written press, is very rich in cultural references and if these are missed an article may not be fully understood. Across several years he scoured the pages of a range of titles from Le Figaro to Le Canard enchaîné and has come up with some 3000 words and phrases which can be essential to a full grasp of a text.
Mould’s sections cover a wide range from popular songs and TV shows through frequently evoked people and places to literary and Biblical allusions. As he points out, French education is still highly centralised and with an emphasis on traditional culture and this accounts for the “learned” character of a lot of this material. The fables of La Fontaine, for example, are still regularly invoked by politicians and journalists. He also records those shorthand terms – Bercy, Grenelle and suchlike – regularly used, and gives an exhaustive list of acronyms of which the French are so fond (at last I now know what the CAC in CAC 40 stands for!).
I shall in future be reaching for this volume rather than just passing over what I might find obscure but believe is not essential to understanding. To take just three instances, I’ve never really understood catimini, peau de chagrin and pactole. Incidentally, as you use this book, you learn many things on the way: for example, that in the French Bible, Adam and Eve, when they discovered modesty, reached for feuilles de vigne, not fig leaves, and that French equestrian hunters call out “Hallali!” (English “Tally Ho”). Mould also helps us with puns (a weakness of Le Canard) which can be notably convoluted.
DSK’s mishaps have allowed much play with the first part of his surname and the slang term valseuses (testicles). A listing of English words used in French (sometimes in funny ways) with the officially proposed “patriotic” equivalents shows just how pithier our language is than theirs. So for jet lag we’re offered fatigue provoquée par le décalage horaire. Some suggested replacement terms are simply puzzling: le tape à l’œil for bling. I could go on and on quoting this book.
For any regular reader of the French print media it has to be indispensable.