BOOK DETAILS

Les Bons Mots: How to Amaze Tout Le Monde with Everyday French

Les Bons Mots: How to Amaze Tout Le Monde with Everyday French

by Eugene Ehrlich

ISBN: 9780805058109

Publisher Henry Holt

Published in Reference/Foreign Languages

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Sample Chapter


CHAPTER 1

A

à bas! (ah bah)

down with!

Useful in such locutions as à bas le communisme! (luu kaw-mü-NEESMe, "communism"), or à bas anything or anyone else you're not fond of.

à bâtons rompus (ah bah-TAWN rawn-PÜ) by fits and starts

Also translated as "fitfully" and, literally, as "with broken sticks." This is hardly the best way to work when you are serious about accomplishing anything. Steady does it.

à bientôt (ah byan-TOH) see you soon

A phrase useful in making your good-byes; literally, "until soon."

à bis ou à blanc (ah beess oo ah blahn) by hook or by crook

Also freely translated as "in one way or another." Useful when you intend to accomplish something by any means available, whether completely ethical or not. The literal translation is "in grayish brown or in white." The word bis in this locution is not to be confused with the opera fan's bis! (beess), originally Italian, meaning "repeat!" or "encore!" and pronounced identically. The French word encore (ahn-KOR) in this sense means "more" or "again."

à bon appétit il ne faut point de sauce (ah bawn nahpay-TEE eel nuu foh pwahn duu sohss) hungry people don't have to be coaxed to eat

Literally, "a good appetite needs no sauce." Good for anxious parents to keep in mind when watching children pick at their food. Also helpful for cooks who think they have to go to elaborate lengths in preparing food they serve. If one's children or guests are hungry, don't worry — they will eat.

à bon chat, bon rat (ah bawn shah bawn rah) set a thief to catch a thief

Literally, "to a good cat, a good rat," conveying the meaning "it takes cunning to outwit cunning." (See also À CORSAIRE, CORSAIRE ET DEMI and À FRIPON, FRIPON ET DEMI.)

à bon chien, il ne vient jamais un bon os (ah bawn shyan eel nuu vyanzhah-MAY œn bawn nawss) nice guys finish last

Literally, "a good bone never comes to a good dog." The sad intent here is to tell us "the squeaky wheel receives the oil" or "merit is rarely rewarded." So be prepared.

à bon commencement bonne fin (ah bawn kawm-mahnSMAHN bawn fan) start off on the right foot

More literally, "a good beginning makes a good ending," a proverb first recorded in English in the fourteenth century.

abondance de biens ne nuit pas (ah-bawnDAHNSS duu byan nuu nwee pah) you can't be too rich or too thin

Also rendered freely as "opulence does no harm," and literally as "abundance of good things does no harm." And this is why we're told that if you've got it, flaunt it!

à bon entendeur, salut (ah bawn nahntahn-DUHR sah-LÜ) speech is silver, silence is golden

The Persian proverb given above in English counsels against speaking out of turn, now more commonly expressed as "shooting off one's mouth." The French proverb, literally, "to a good listener, safety," incorporates the same wisdom.

à bon vin point d'enseigne (ah bawn van pwahn dahnSAYNYe) who needs Madison Avenue?

We all know that if we build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to our door. More formally, any product that has real merit does not have to be advertised. This thought is expressed by the French proverb given here, literally, "good wine needs no sign," and by a sixteenth-century English proverb that expressed the thought as "good wine needs no bush." In the English proverb, "bush" goes back to the ivy bush, which for a long time was seen on the sign hung outside taverns. Why an ivy bush? In ancient Rome it was sacred to Bacchus, god of wine.

à brebis tondue Dieu mesure le vent (ah bruu-BEE tawn-DÜ dyuu muu-ZÜR luu vahn) God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb

This French proverb makes good sense to true believers, who know that God in his goodness moderates conditions so as not to harm any defenseless person, here represented as a poor little lamb that has lost its coat.

à cause de la grève (ah kohz duu lah grayve) owing to the strike

Whether we blame our troubles on baseball team owners or on the players, a phrase of particular interest to all who follow big-league baseball.

à chacun sa chacune (ah shah-KœN sah shah-KÜN) don't despair, there's someone out there for everybody

An English proverb dating back to the seventeenth century tells us "every Jack has his Jill," meaning that every man will eventually be able to find a wife of his own. In the French version given above, the masculine chacun and the feminine chacune both mean "each one," so, literally, "to each him, his own her." Not an elegant phrase in this translation.

Not surprisingly, Gilbert and Sullivan said it more felicitously and more realistically in The Yeomen of the Guard:

It is purely a matter of skill, Which all may attain if they will: But every Jack, He must study the knack If he wants to make sure of his Jill!


à chacun selon son mérite (ah shah-KœN suuLAWN sawn may-REET) to each according to his worth

A slogan evocative of Karl Marx's dictum "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," but quite different in intent. The emphasis in the French phrase is on the social contribution made by the individual, not on the needs of the individual.

à chacun son heure de gloire (ah shahKœN sawn nuhr duu glwahr) every dog has its day

Literally, "to each of us an hour of glory"— recent evidence has it that fame is measured in minutes — suggesting that while a person at some time may appear to be on the top of the heap, we can be certain that eminence is transitory. Soon enough, there will be someone else in his place. (See also À CHACUN VIENT SA CHANCE.)

à chacun son métier (ah shah-KœN sawn may-TYAY) shoemaker, stick to your last

A thought originally given in Latin, with the popular English translation given above. The French advice translates literally as "every man to his own trade." But the Latin, the French, and the English convey the same meaning — no one should presume to interfere in matters in which he or she is not qualified. In short, mind your own business!

à chacun vient sa chance (ah shahKœN vyan sah shahnss) my turn will come tomorrow

Also translated as "every dog has its day," literally, "everyone gets a chance." This is the way life is, and it has nothing to do with democratic government or with America, the land of opportunity. Thus, you are enjoined not to crow today, because tomorrow you may see me enjoying my chance. (See also À CHACUN SON HEURE DE GLOIRE.)

à chaque jour suffit sa peine (ah shahk zhoor sü-FEE sah payn) every day there's trouble enough to go round

A French translation of Matthew in the New Testament: "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

à chaque oiseau son nid est beau (ah shahk wah-ZOH sawn nee ay boh) every bird thinks its own nest is fine

Not just birds, of course, but the rest of us too, young as well as old. Maybe this is part of the mind-set of well-adjusted people, who manage to get through their lives without being consumed by envy. Or maybe it's because there are more than enough rose-colored glasses to go round.

à chaque saint sa chandelle (ah shahk san sah shahn-DAYL) honor to whom honor is due

Literally translated as "to each saint his candle," an allusion to the practice of lighting candles to honor the memory of saints.

acheter chat en poche (ahsh-TAY shah ahn pawsh) buy a pig in a poke

Unless you and I are exceptionally wary, we may be inclined at least once in our lives to buy a pig in a poke. The French so inclined may, literally, "buy a cat in a pocket." And why not? The English word "pocket" is a diminutive of "poke." Of course, neither language speaks approvingly in these idioms. English speakers are led to think they are buying a pig in a sack and fail to look inside before plunking down hard cash. In the old confidence game, a swindler would actually have a cat — instead of a pig — in the poke. Thus, the French saying is more accurate in that the dupe is actually buying a cat when he thinks he's buying a pig. Take note: acheter chat en poche extends to any purchase we contemplate. Especially ten-dollar Rolex watches offered by sidewalk vendors. Maybe we should all subscribe to Consumer Reports.

acheter quelque chose pour une bouchée de pain (ahshTAY kaylke shohz poor ün boo-SHAY duu pan) buy something for a song

The dream of every flea market devotee, literally translated as "buy something for a mouthful of bread."

à cheval donné on ne regarde pas la bride (ah shuu-VAHL dawn-NAY awnnuu ruu-GAHRD pah lah breed) never look a gift horse in the mouth

The allusion in the translation given is to the practice of assessing the age of a horse by examining its front teeth. The French expression, however, does not speak of teeth. Rather, it says, literally, "don't look at the bridle of a gift horse." Notwithstanding, in both cases the advice carries the same meaning. When someone gives you a gift, you know it ain't nice to ask the donor how much the gift is worth.

à coeur ouvert (ah kuhr oo-VAIR) unreservedly

Also translated as "without holding anything back" and, literally, "with open heart."

à corsaire, corsaire et demi (ah kor-SAIR kor-SAIR ay deMEE) set a thief to catch a thief

We are told that when you wish to catch a rascal, hire a bigger rascal, literally, "against a pirate, a pirate and a half." (See also À BON CHAT, BON RAT andÀ FRIPON, FRIPON ET DEMI.)

à coups de dictionnaire (ah koo duu deek-shawn-NAIR) with continual reference to the dictionary

Literally translated as "with strokes of the dictionary," and hardly intended as a compliment. The allusion is to the writer who searches for obscure words he considers elegant, rather than choosing readily understood words that come easily to mind. The result is a text that sends most readers on frequent dictionary searches of their own to try to figure out what the writer is trying to say.

à des prix très étudiés (ah day pree tray zay-tü-DYAY) prices cut to the bone

The French idiom for suggesting that merchandise is being offered at rock-bottom prices, more literally, "at the lowest possible prices." The verb étudier means "study," giving us in this idiom the image of a merchant staying up late at night looking for ways to help clients get the most for their money. Get real!

à deux (ah duu) two at a time

Also translated as "of two," "for two," and "by twos." Two phrases employing à deux are of interest: à deux fins (fan), meaning "for two usesor purposes," as a horse suitable for riding and jumping; and à deux mains(man), meaning "with both hands" and, literally, "with or for two hands."

adieu la voiture, adieu la boutique (ah-DYUU lah vwah-TÜR ah-DYUU lah boo-TEEK) go belly up

Bankruptcy has been around for a long time, so it's no surprise that the French have this idiom, literally, "good-bye automobile, good-bye shop" to indicate that it's all over — bankruptcy, here I come! But wouldn't you agree that "good-bye automobile, good-bye shop" has a special poignancy? We can almost see the tearful shopkeeper standing at his door while creditors haul away his every last possession.

adieu paniers, vendanges sont faites (ah-DYUU pah-NYAY vawn-DAHNZH sawn fayt) turn off the respirator, it's all over

Literally, "farewell, baskets, the vintage is over." The image is of the final day of the annual grape harvest, but the words speak to all of us. There comes a time when we all must make our final farewells — the game is over, there's no hope left, there's nothing more to be done.

affaire (ah-FAIR) affair

This useful word gives us the following phrases: affaire d'amour (dah-MOOR) is a love affair, as is affaire de coeur (duu kuhr), which has the literal meaning of "affair of the heart." Affaire de moeurs (duu muhr, "of morals") is a sex scandal or sex case. Affaire d'honneur (daw-NUHR) is a duel, literally an "affair of honor."

à fils de cordonnier point de chaussures (ah feess duu kordaw-NYAY pwahn duu shoh-SÜR) the shoemaker's son has no shoes

Folk wisdom. In the course of our daily efforts to keep body and soul together by working hard at our daily tasks, many of us tend to put our families' needs last. (See also CE SONT LES CORDONNIERS QUI SONT LES PLUS MAL CHAUSSES.)

à fripon, fripon et demi (ah free-PAWN free-PAWN ay duu-MEE) to catch a crook, hire a bigger crook

Almost literally, "against a rogue, set a rogue and a half." (See also À BON CHAT, BON RAT and À CORSAIRE, CORSAIRE ET DEMI.)

agent provocateur (ah-ZHAHN pro-voh-kah-TUHR) entrapment expert

Literally, "inciting agent," which term is far from adequate as a replacement for agent provocateur. Indeed, there is no English term that can replace the French. So what does English do? Acting characteristically, English has taken agent provocateur directly into the language, and we are stuck with "agent provocateur," pronounced AY-jent pre-VAHK-e-TUHR. And when we define agent provocateur in either language we call attention to a secret agent employed to provoke criminal suspects to commit illegal actions that will make them liable for prosecution.

aide (ayd) help

This verb — infinitive form aider, ay-DAY — appears in a variety of requests or injunctions: aide-moi (aydMWAH), "help me"; aide-nous (ayd-NOO), "help us"; aide-toi, et le ciel t'aidera (ayd-TWAH ay luu syayl tayduu-RAH), literally, "help yourself, and heaven will help you." (This last is attributed to La Fontaine.) More commonly, we render this advice as "God helps those who help themselves."

aide de camp (ayd duu kahn) aide-de-camp

Aide here is a noun meaning "helper," giving us, literally, "camp helper," a pallid translation; more freely and accurately, "assistant to a military officer." The term aide de camp is one among many specialized French military terms that have been taken into English unaltered or virtually unaltered. Consider colonel, colonel; capitaine, captain; s ergent, sergeant; caporal, corporal — the list is a very long one. The only alteration in aide de camp is the addition of hyphens in the English word, "aide-de-camp" (ayd de kamp). And, of course, the word aide has retained its spelling in the English word "aide"— pronounced ayd — which is used widely to mean "assistant" in such designations as "teacher's aide" and "nurse's aide."

aimer éperdument (ay-MAY ay-pair-dü-MAHN) love passionately

And if you think that's true love, read the next entry.

aimer quelqu'un avec frénésie (ay-MAY kaylKœN ah-VAYK fray-nay-ZEE) love someone wildly

The noun frénésie translates literally as "frenzy," besides which desperate love is a close second, and passionate love comes in a distant third.

à l'abandon (ah lah-bahn-DAWN) in disorder

Literally, "in abandonment." Sometimes translated as "at sixes and sevens," more frequently, as "at random," "left uncared for," and "adrift."

à la belle étoile (ah lah bayl ay-TWAHL) under the stars

Also rendered as "in the open air at night"; literally, "at the beautiful star." To appreciate this phrase, imagine yourself camping out in Vermont on a starry night. Ah!

à la bonne heure (ah lah bawn uhr) very well

Literally, "at the good hour." Better translated as "be it so."

à l'abri (ah lah-BREE) under cover

Literally, "under shelter," either literally or figuratively.

à la carte (ah lah kahrt) according to the menu

A restaurant term indicating that dishes are ordered — and paid for — individually. Distinguished from table d'hôte (tahble doht), which offers an entire meal, with fewer choices and a fixed price. (See also À PRIX FIXE.)

à la croûte! (ah lah kroot) come and get it!

This idiomatic expression, literally, "to the crust!" summons guests or family to put on the feed bag. While it appears to bear little relation to the word "crust," keep in mind that French chefs prepare more than one dish en (ahn) croûte, translated as "in pastry." Enough to make one's mouth water!

(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Les Bons Mots: How to Amaze Tout Le Monde with Everyday French" by Eugene Ehrlich. Copyright © 2013 by Eugene Ehrlich. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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