Une tartine, une ficelle, une fiche.
ewn taar-TEEN, ewn fee-SELL, ewn FEESH. Click below to hear the sound files.
No, it’s not a tonguetwister, though you’re welcome to use it as one if you wish. It’s three words that ought to be adopted into English, because we have no exact equivalent for them. If the French-speaking world can have our sandwich (le sandwich, luh sah-DWEECH) and our weekend (le weekend, luh wee-KEND), why can’t we have these?
Une tartine: a piece of bread with anything spread on it. It’s not exactly an open-faced sandwich, although that seems to be the closest equivalent, because that doesn’t necessarily involve a spread. A tartine might be smeared with butter, jam, peanut butter (not a favorite in most of Europe), Nutella (definitely a favorite, and available in the US in many supermarkets…a heavenly mixture of chocolate and hazelnut butter), or honey. It might have a bit of sugar or grated chocolate sprinkled over the butter, but it’s the spread that makes it a tartine.
Une ficelle: a piece of string. Shouldn’t there be a one-word expression for such a simple little thing? Nineteenth-century French author Guy de Maupassant wrote a short story called La Ficelle,which you can find at this link. It will be hard to read if you are a beginner, but here’s the gist of it: an elderly man from Normandy is accused of stealing a dropped wallet, when all he had really done was to pick up a ficelle from the road. (It might be useful, after all!) The lying accusation undoes him.
Une fiche: Yes, in English we talk about a microfiche (and often pronounce it fish, like something to eat), but many have no idea what the fiche part of the word is. In French usage, it’s simply a piece of paper or a card with something written on it. It could be a grocery list on the back of an envelope, a permission slip for the grade-school excursion to the museum, a form to fill out for the government, a reminder written on a corner of the butcher-paper table cover in a restaurant, a cue card for a nervous speaker.
From their earliest childhood, my children knew and used these three words. Teach them to yours! No need to explain that the words are French; just use them, the earlier the better. Let’s start a movement!