“My French Teachers Never Told me That!” — or why we need to talk about slang.
There’s a well-known saying: “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” This applies to the study of foreign languages. Even when you’ve studied a language for years, you can get in trouble, because we don’t get taught slang in school—or at least we didn’t back in the Stone Age when I was a kid. I took French through my sophomore year of college, and was reading Moliere, but none of my teachers or professors told me something I really needed to know about the verb baiser, which as a little schoolgirl in England back in the early 70’s, I was told meant “to kiss.”
Meanings can change over time, and not being aware of it can lead to some extremely awkward — although amusing in retrospect—situations.
Back in 2000, my family spent time in a small village south of Limoges in the Perigord region of France. The countryside around us was steeped in history: Le Chateau de Chalus, where Richard Cœur de Lion (the Lionhearted) died after having been wounded by a crossbow bolt, and Oradour-sur-Glane, where the Nazis massacred a village in retribution for Resistance attacks.
The villagers were quite cool to us at first, but it turns out it was because they thought we were German for some reason. Once they found out that we were English/American, they warmed to us — we attended a dance in the village hall and our French neighbors invited us to dinner, where we discussed the Tour de France and they accused Lance Armstrong of doping. (Narrator voice: They were right.)
I wanted to brush up on my conversational French, so I met once a week with an Englishman who lived in the area and spoke fluent French to chat.
My then-husband was a keen cyclist, so I learned about professional cycling watching the nightly reporting on the Tour de France by British commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. Phil Liggett was my particular favorite — I loved his wry humor.
The Tour was passing through a few places near where we were staying, so we took the kids to see a stage.
But then we went to see a stage without the kids. Alberto Elli of that was then team Telekom was in the lead after that stage. Here is is wearing the maillot jaune.
I knew that Phil Liggett was there, so I was a woman on a mission. We wandered back to where all the TV vans were, and eventually…we found him!
Phil was as charming in person as he was on TV. He kissed me on each check, comme il faut en Europe, and my then-husband took the picture above. As you can see from my smile, I was really happy.
The next day, I met with my French teacher for some conversation. He asked how things had been going. I told him the following:
J’ai recontre Phil Liggett. Il m’a baise deux fois, mon mari a prix des photos, et j’etais tres heureuse!”
He cracked up. Like serious guffaws.
I couldn’t understand what was so funny. What I thought I said was “I met Phil Liggett. He kissed me twice, my husband took photos, and I was really happy!”
Not that funny.
When he stopped laughing, he explained my mistake. Despite having started French at ten, and taken it through my sophomore year of college, no one had ever told me that using baiser as a verb was vulgar slang that means something considerably more than kissing.
So what I’d actually told him was: “I met Phil Liggett, he f*cked me twice, my husband took photos and I was really happy!”
In retrospect, it’s hilarious. At the time, you probably could have felt the heat from my face across the Atlantic.
Nowadays, I believe we’re taught the verb embrasser is to kiss, so people are less likely to run into that problem. But still…we shouldn’t send students out into the world without a warning when verbs can have alternate — and extremely embarrassing — meanings.