Ils se fréquentent.

Ils se fréquentent.

eel suh fray-KAHT. Click below to hear this. 

They’re seeing each other.

Fréquenter, just as it appears, means to frequent. You can use it to refer to your favorite bakery, café, spa, just about establishment that you patronize frequently. But did you know that it also refers to the person you are dating? Here’s how to start the gossip machine: Tu sais que Jean-Paul fréquente Mélanie? You know that Jean-Paul is seeing Mélanie? Of course, you have to whisper it, slyly, to create the right atmosphere of shock and scandal.

Assuming the attraction between the two is mutual, you can also say Ils se fréquententThey are seeing each other. The trick here is to understand how each other works in French. Instead of adding extra words (you could also say one another in English), you have to do something to the verb. It’s really quite simple. The subject pronoun becomes plural (ils in this case), the verb takes on the plural form (fréquentent instead of fréquente).

And then the big change: the verb becomes reflexive. That means that it takes on another pronoun, called (what else?) the reflexive pronoun. Its function is to show that the action reflects two ways, back and forth between the subjects. Whatever the one person is doing, the other person reflects back at the the first.

So Il la taquine, He teases her, might be a case of bullying. Ils se taquinentThey tease each other, probably suggests a relationship based on wit and like-mindedness. Elle le déteste means that She hates him (Pierre?) or it (broccoli?). Ils se détestent means that She hates him and he hates her (broccoli probably doesn’t play into this particular equation). Remember, when you switch to the plural subject pronoun, to consider who they are. Ils is required for any group involving at least one male (or masculine object). Elles works only for all-female or all-feminine groups.

Alternate audio file link: ils-se-frequentent

Il l’a pris à part.

Il l’a pris à part.

ee lah pree ah PAAR. Click below to hear this. 

He took him aside.

Another part- word! How many look-alike expressions can one language come up with? How many different meanings can one word have? Will the fun never end?

Well. I don’t think I can answer those questions, but I can tell you about today’s expression. Will that do?

You shouldn’t have too much trouble remembering à part. If you put a bulldozer on each end of the expression and push the two words together, you get the English word apart, which means separated from. It’s what happens when your two-year-old gets his hands on the Lego construction that your eight-year-old made. The pieces are scattered.

It’s also what happens when you’re at a party, and Pierre begins telling a story that has the potential for embarrassing someone in the group. Jean-Marc pulls Pierre aside and explains why Pierre should keep his story to himself. In other words, Jean-Marc separates Pierre from the group: Il l’a pris à part.

Just don’t make the mistake in English of saying that Jean-Marc took Pierre apart. That’s a slangy way of saying that Jean-Marc gave Pierre a thorough scolding, criticizing him for every mistake he ever made. It also sounds too much like the old song “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones.” Don’t know it? Look it up here.

Alternate audio file link: il-la-pris-a-part

J’ai dû la prendre à partie.

J’ai dû la prendre à partie.

zhay dew lah prah-drah paar-TEE. Click below to hear this. 

I had to take her to task.

Devoir is a complicated verb! I should probably write about it one of these days. But for today, let’s just say that the passé composé (compound past) of this verb, j’ai dû, il a dû, and so on, means I had to, he had to, etc. It can also be translated I was obliged to. It doesn’t say where the obligation came from–internal or external–but you felt that you had to do something.

In this case, I had to take her to task, which is just another way of saying that I had to scold her. Maybe she was disrespectful, or failed to do what I asked her to do, or did something she shouldn’t have. Prendre à partie looks remarkably like yesterday’s phraseprendre le parti de…  But that final e makes all the difference. While un parti is a political party, a side (in a dispute, for example), or a prejudice, une partie can be all sorts of things: a part, a (social) party, a round or a game, or a struggle or fight

Attempting to dissect some expressions is a futile exercise. There is no easy way to fit this sequence of words together in a way that makes sense in English. But remembering that une partie is a gathering of people, and that a gathering of people may play a game, and that the game may become contentious, and that the whole thing may explode in dispute and blame-laying, is one way to remember that J’ai dû la prendre à partie means I had to take her to task. Or you can just memorize it.

Alternate audio file link: jai-du-la-prendre-a-partie

Il a pris le parti de démissioner.

Il a pris le parti de démissioner.

ee lah preel paar-teed day-mee-seeyuh-NAY. Click below to hear this. 

He made up his mind to resign.

Plenty of people resign from committees, chairmanships, jobs, and even washing the after-dinner dishes. But few of them become famous. One President of the United States did, in 1974, when he resigned the presidency. That was Richard Nixon. I was in France that summer, and the daily question in the grocery store to “l’Américaine” (that was me, or alternatively, my housemate that summer and friend, Carolyn) was Qu’est-ce qu’il va faire, votre Président? My stock answer, of course, was Mais je ne sais pas! (If this event was not part of your history, you can read about it here.)

Démissioner means to resign. When you do it, you are giving up a mission that you had previously been charged with. You un-mission yourself. Nixon was the first–and is so far the only–American President to step down from office, and it was shocking news at the time. But even that can’t match a more recent, and much higher-profile, resignation: that of Pope Benedict XVI. Other popes have resigned, but it hasn’t happened in six centuries. That’s a long time.

I can’t imagine that the Pope took the decision lightly. I do imagine he spent a good deal of time on his knees. He was faced with a hard choice: live out his papacy in continually declining health, increasingly unable to perform his duties, or step aside for a younger, healthier, more vigorous pope? Would he be seen as a coward for quitting? Would he be turning over the office to someone who would undermine all he had been working for? Or would his departure be seen as an act of grace, courage, or generosity?

The phrase used in French when you make up your mind or decide to do something is prendre le parti de faire quelque chose. Literally, it is to take the party of doing something. Not a whoop-de-doo party with balloons and music, but more like a political party. You are taking sides, choosing among options, none of which may be perfect or clear or completely desirable. But you do decide, and you take a stand, and you do what you feel is necessary. That is your parti pris, your choice, your decision.

Alternate audio file link: il-a-pris-le-parti

La Randonnée la plus spectaculaire du monde.

La Randonnée la plus spectaculaire du monde.

lah rah-duh-nay lah plew speck-taa-kew-lair dew MAWD. Click below to hear this. 

The most spectacular hike in the world.

Let’s get the grammar out of the way right now, because the topic is so much more interesting.

Note the word order: When you state a superlative (“the most…”) in French, the adjective goes after the noun, and has to agree with the noun it describes. You have to introduce the adjective with an article, which also has to agree with the noun. Since la randonnée is feminine, so are la and spectaculaire. (Of course you can’t tell by looking at spectaculaire, since it ends in e anyway.)

But let’s get down to business. What is a randonnée? Glad you asked. It can be anything from a casual ramble in the countryside to a Himalayan trek. A hike, a walk, even a horseback ride or a cross-country ski outing, could all be a randonnée.

Now here comes the fun. The Old French, Frankish, and Germanic origins of this word all have to do with running fast, haphazardly, impetuously–all suggesting a total lack of planning. In fact, the English word random is directly related to the French randonnée and its forebears. (Here’s a link to the etymology.)

The randonnée I want to tell you about, however, has to have involved more planning than any other hike on the planet. Nothing at all impetuous, or fast, or random about it. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist named Paul Salopek has embarked on a hike that will take seven years to complete. On foot, insofar as possible (there are a few places where you need a boat…). He began in January 2013 in Ethiopia, and plans to follow the path that migrating humankind took, starting in prehistoric times. From Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America.

Every 100 miles, he will stop and publish a “milestone”: a view of the earth and the sky at the spot where he is standing, a recording of the sounds he is hearing, an brief standardized interview with the nearest human being. The name of the project is the Out of Eden Walk.

You can follow this incredible journey on Twitter (#edenwalk) or online at http://www.outofedenwalk.com/ You can sign up for emails to notify you when Paul has published a new milestone, or other blog post. As for me, I hope to “follow” him to the end of his 21,000-mile randonnée.

This has to be the most ambitious piece of reporting ever undertaken. It excites me and sparks my imagination as very little else does. In fact, I am trying to restrain myself from using every superlative I know. I will never think of a hike–or our world–in the same way again. I hope you agree.

Alternate audio file link: randonnee-la-plus-spectaculaire

Donnez un coup de neuf à votre sofa.

Donnez un coup de neuf à votre sofa.

duh-nay uh kood nuh fah vuh-truh soh-FAH. Click below to hear this. 

Spruce up your sofa.

I was reminded of this expression while reading an article about redecorating on the cheap, a concept that appeals to me. So I went online and found a photo of a sofa that I thought needed a lot of help. Is this one ugly enough?

old sofa

How about un jeté de lit? That’s a bedspread or a throw. Is this any better?

jete-de-lit

Still looks pretty “busy” to me. What about des coussinscoussins-last3

Hmmm. Not enough.

coussins-another6

I think this sofa will need 
beaucoup de coussins

By now, you have figured out that un coup de neuf has nothing to do with spruce trees. Donner un coup de neuf means to give a touch of the new to something. Make it look new, freshen it up, “fluff” it, as designers say these days.

But I think this sofa is beyond help. Even this won’t help:

coussins-more

I recommend un sofa neuf ultra-moderne, comme ça:

sofa-design-moderne-1

Alternate audio file link: un-coup-de-neuf

Bienvenue!

Bienvenue!

byaa-vnew! Click below to hear this. 

Welcome!

Here’s the question that a reader posted yesterday: “What’s up with “bienvenu”? What are the rules for using it with gender and number endings? Help! a wondering welcomer.”

Thank you, Suzanne! You’ve handed me a ready-made opportunity for a good blog topic! Here we go.

If you want to hang a banner above the street or a sign on your door, and you only have room for one word, this is what it should say:

bienvenue-webcopy

That’s just plain Welcome.

But there’s another, more expansive way to welcome people in French. You can turn it into a whole sentence, like this: Soyez les bienvenus. In this case, bienvenue is no longer a noun that signifies the welcome itself. It is a noun that signifies the person or people who are being welcomed. And that is when you need to use gender and number.

So there are four possibilities! Here they are, along with when to use each:

soyez le bienvenu: when you are welcoming one male guest

soyez la bienvenue: when you are welcoming one female guest

soyez les bienvenus: when you are welcoming two or more male guests, or a group of two or more  people including both male and female guests

soyez les bienvenues: when you are welcoming a two or more female guests (no men in this group!).

That’s a command, by the way: Be welcome. Of course the message you are really conveying is I hope you feel welcome here. And there are other things you can say, for example Vous serez les bienvenues chez moiYou (ladies) will be most welcome in my home. Or Tu es le bienvenu. You are welcome.

There are two things you can’t do with these words. One is to turn any of them into verbs. To welcome someone is souhaiter la bienvenue à quelqu’unto wish someone welcome. The other thing you can’t do is reply to Merci. It’s just accidental that we use the same word for two purposes in English. French has plenty of other words for that.

Alternate audio file link: bienvenue

Elle m’a mise dans l’embarras.

Elle m’a mise dans l’embarras.

ell mah meez dah lah-baa-RAH. Click below to hear this. 

She put me on the spot.

Maybe she asked me a personal question in the presence of strangers, or sprang a request on me, in a public meeting, for a report that wasn’t due until next week. In some way, she caught me unawares, and I was unable to answer clearly and confidently. I was embarrassed.

We’ve all been there! It’s not a comfortable feeling. Note that if you are a male, you will say Elle m’a mis dans l’embarras, without the e on the end of mis. That changes the pronunciation: /ell mah mee dah lah-baa-RAH/. No /z/ sound in the middle! The me represents the person who is speaking, and the past participle of the verb has to agree with the gender of that pronoun, provided that the pronoun comes before the verb.

That’s not the trickiest part of this phrase by a long shot, though. The hardest part is not pronouncing the m in embarras. It’s only there to show that the first syllable is a nasal vowel sound; there is actually no consonant in that first syllable! To get the hang of it, try speaking the word very, very slowly. No humming allowed–say /ah/ without closing your lips. Leave your mouth hanging open. Now clamp down on the /baa/. Make it pop out of your mouth. Again, leave your mouth hanging open–don’t be in a hurry to get to the /r/. Finally, add the /rah/, like cheering for your school team.

One more thing: Don’t confuse this statement with another meaning of put someone on the spot. If you are talking about transferring one of your engineers–let’s say his name is Lebeau–to Prague, so that communications between plants will go more smoothly, that’s a different matter altogether. In that case, you will say On a mis Lebeau sur place. That’s the same as saying We put Lebeau on site. No embarrassment involved at all.

Alternate audio file link: elle-ma-mise-dans-lembarras

Je lui ai raconté un mensonge officieux.

Je lui ai raconté un mensonge officieux.

zhuh lwee ay raa-kaw-tay uh mah-saw zhoh-fee-seeYUH. Click below to hear this. 

I told him a (little) white lie.

Yes, I did. I lied. But it was for his own good. He needed support, not criticism, so I told him that I could hear the difference in his trumpet playing. He still plays out of tune, and hits all the wrong notes, but he is trying, and he practices so earnestly.

I told her that she looks great in that color. What I didn’t tell her is that the dress itself is unflattering. What good would that do? Aren’t there times when it is more helpful to be kind than to be truthful?

Hence, the French word for a white lie, or, as many people say (doubtless to minimize any possible harm that could come of it), a little white lie. Do you remember what we said yesterday, about the word officieux? It means obliging, helpful, willing to help. That’s what we do when we tell a white lie. Our goal, our intent, is to be helpful.

Note that it doesn’t matter, in this French sentence, whether I am lying to him or to her. It’s the same pronoun, lui, in both cases. It’s an indirect object of the verb raconterto tell or recount. You have to tell something to someone.

It’s interesting, by the way, to see what other languages call un mensonge officieux. In German, it’s a soziale Lüge, a “social lie”. In Spanish, it’s a mentirilla, a “tiny little lie”. And in Latin, my favorite, it’s a pia fraus, a “holy fraud”. Evidently, people have been lying in the name of keeping the peace in every place and since the dawn of time.

Alternate audio file link: je-lui-ai-raconte-un-mensonge-officieux

Puis-je parler à titre officieux?

Puis-je parler à titre officieux?

pweezh paar-lay ah tee-troh-fee-seeYUH? Click below to hear this. 

May I speak off the record?

I love etymologies, you already know that. I think it’s fascinating to see where a word came from and how it came to exist in its current form and with its current meaning. But did you know that a word can acquire a completely opposite or unrelated meaning somewhere along the way?

That’s what happened with officieux and the English word officious. In Latin, a person who was officiosus was obliging, willing to serve. That was also the original meaning — now obsolete — of officious. A lovely kind of person to have as a friend! But nowadays, a person who is officious is a pest, always offering unwanted advice, being pushy about helping, trying to take over the project.

And what about the French? The word has kept some of its original meaning. If you give out information à titre officieux or officieusement, it’s not official, but you are trying to be of service to someone by sharing the information. And when you speak off the record, you are in fact trying to be helpful, perhaps by sharing information that will assist your interviewer in understanding a situation, even if the info may not be quoted. That’s parler à titre officieux. You’re not being a pest, even if the interviewer really, really wants to print what you said.

One more thing: puis-je may look odd to you. It’s the correct inverted interrogative form of the first person singular present tense. In other words, when you want to ask may I? or can I? by inverting the verb and the subject, you need to say puis-je, which is pronounced as a single syllable (that’s a silent e on the end). Peux-je doesn’t exist, because it’s a combination of two weak vowel sounds. But you can still say est-ce que je peux parler officieusement?

Alternate audio file link: puis-je-parler-a-titre-officieux

La vache la première au pré, lèche toute la rosée.

La vache la première au pré, lèche toute la rosée.

lah vahsh lah pruh-meeYAY roh pray, lesh toot lah roh-ZAY. Click below to hear this and the second proverb. 

The early bird gets the worm.

This post is for my brother, who barely avoided an interesting encounter with a herd of cows recently. That’s right, cows. As you can see, today’s phrase has nothing to do with birds–early or late–or worms.

It’s about cows. The proverb goes like this: The first cow in the pasture licks up all the dew. Not being a grass-eater myself, I can’t tell you the advantages of licking all the dew, except that maybe it makes the grass juicier. But if you’re a cow, I suppose you do get the tenderest morsels if you can beat the rest of the herd to it.

French has a more classic way to express the same thought: L’avenir appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt, which means The future belongs to those who rise early. (Pronounce it this way: /laav-nee raa-paar-tee-aa ah suh kee slev toe/.) As painful as that thought is to me–I have never been a morning person–it’s a widely-accepted precept. It’s a form of Carpe diem, Seize the day. It puts a moral spin on our bedtime habits. If you’re a morning slug, you’re a bad person.

Then there’s Benjamin Franklin, who is quoted as having said “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” A classic statement of moral judgment on those who sleep late or stay up late!

Of course, there is the tongue-in-cheek saying in English: The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. All is not dark and gloomy in the world of the latecomer.

Alternate audio file link: la-vache-la-premiere-au-pre

Elle s’est mise dans tous ses états.

Elle s’est mise dans tous ses états.

ell say meez dah too say zay-TAH. Click below to hear this. 

She got all hot and bothered.

This is the sort of phrase that you want to be able to say, but you can’t figure out how to translate it. For starters, the verb to get has dozens of possible translations. It’s hard to get hot in French. You can be hot all you want, and that’s avoir chaud, literally to have hot. You see the difficulties here. To get hot, you will have to say something like elle a commencé à avoir chaudshe started to be/feel hot. And the thing is, our phrase doesn’t even have anything to do with heat.

And let’s not even get started on bothered. That’s another whole can of worms, and just thinking about it gets me all hot and bothered. There is just no way to translate the expression word for word.

So here’s how we deal with that in French: Elle s’est mise dans tous ses états. Literally, that’s She put herself into all her states. Which states are those? Pennsylvania, Illinois, Hawaii? Nope. Her states are all the ways in which she manifests her displeasure, her annoyance, her distress, her anger. She may cry, yell, bang on the wall, swear (plug up your ears, children), break things, blame others, turn white and shake. She may smile, with an evil glint in her eye. In a word, she is frazzled.

As for the verb se mettre, literally to put oneself, it implies that she has allowed herself to go all to pieces over this issue. It’s a subtle reminder that we have the ability to control our behavior. It’s up to us to exercise it.

Alternate audio file link: elle-sest-mise-dans-tous-ses-etats

J’attends le remboursement de mes arrhes.

J’attends le remboursement de mes arrhes.

zhaa-tah luh rah-boor-suh-mahd may ZAAR. Click below to hear this. 

I’m waiting for my deposit to be returned.

A few days ago, I wrote about the interesting word arrhes, meaning a deposit or down payment. You can reread that post here, if you like. Today I have a couple more things to say about it.

To begin with, the question of les arrhes is carefully defined and controlled by French law. If you are agreeing to rent a house from me, let’s say, and if you back out of the agreement after paying your deposit (les arrhes), I get to keep your money, because you are the one who broke the agreement.

On the other hand, let’s say I renege on the contract. Not only must I repay your deposit, I must repay you double the amount you had put down. And since la bourse is my pursele remboursement is the “back-in-purse-ness”, to coin a phrase. The buyer is protected from frivolous, malicious, fickle, or dishonest sellers. That’s a good thing.

But I also promised to share with you if I learned anything else about the word, so here are a couple of other remarks.

First of all, my sister-in-law’s colleague at Villanova University, Don, tells me that erabon (or eravon), the ultimate source of arrhes, still exists in modern Hebrew. It means collateralwhich is something you promise instead of money. If you buy a fancy boat and don’t bother paying off the loan, the boat itself is collateral for the loan you took out. No money, no boat.

And here’s another take on the word. I wondered if it was used in the Jewish or Christian Scriptures, given how ancient the word is. Another friend, Jana, sent a link to a fascinating article answering that very question. If you are wondering too, here’s the link. Who knew? From an ancient Semitic word central to commerce, to an ancient Greek word central to religion, to a modern French word once again central to business. What an incredible journey!

Alternate audio file link: remboursement-de-mes-arrhes

J’aime le poisson.

J’aime le poisson.

zhemm luh pwah-SAW. Click below to hear all of these expressions. 

I like fish.

Doesn’t that look yummy? Here’s where you’ll find the recipe. I can’t wait to make it!

But there’s a lot more we can say about fish. For instance:

J’aime les poissons. zhemm lay pwah-SAW. I like fish.

fish decorations

That’s why I collect them.

Or this: Je voudrais du poisson. zhuh voo-dray dew pwah-SAW. I would like some fish.

DandJ Bistro Menu

I am scanning the menu, and thinking out loud. What am I in the mood to eat tonight? I know it will be good, because I am at my favorite restaurant.

Or this: Je prends le thon. zhuh prahl taw. I’ll have the tuna.

Menu Marked Up

Not just any fish. This fish. I have made up my mind and I’m ordering.

And finally: Ce poisson est délicieux! suh pwah-saw ay day-lee-seeUH! This fish is delicious!

And we have gone full circle.

Alternate audio file link: jaime-le-poisson

Ça sort du train-train quotidien!

Ça sort du train-train quotidien!

sah sore dew traa-traa koh-tee-deeAA! Click below to hear this. 

That’s a change from the same-old-same-old!

Such a fun, rich expression! Le train-train is the daily routine. It has nothing to do with trains, even if riding a train is part of your routine. It refers to the repetitive, unvarying sequence of events that make up your day, strung together like train cars. The French have another expression for it: métro-boulot-dodo, and just the other day I saw a “green”, more eco-friendly version: boulot-vélo-dodo, which tells us that the speaker rides a bike to work instead of the Métro.

And quotidien? Who needs a big word like that? Sorry, we’re all stuck with it. It comes from Latin, and simply means daily. Of course there are other expressions to express the idea of daily, but some of them have just as many syllables.

Today’s expression says that something out of the ordinary is happening. You see that verb sortir? That’s to leave, to go out of. Your ordinary day may be boring or interesting or comfortable or difficult, but it’s your train-train quotidien. Today I wish you something about which you can exclaim Wow! (Yes, French speakers do say wow!) Ça sort du train-train quotidien! Something fun and pleasant, of course.

Alternate audio file link: train-train-quotidien

Je gagerais qu’il n’y ira pas.

Je gagerais qu’il n’y ira pas.

zhuh gaa-zhray keel nee ee-rah PAH. Click below to hear this. 

I bet he won’t go.

Go where? We would need a context to know that. That one-letter word y stands for à + a noun, and the noun stands for a place. It could be au musée, à la bibliothèque, à la fête, au rendez-vous, or anyplace else you have just been talking about. Note that you would say il n’ira pas au rendez-vous–with the location after the verb–but il n’y ira pas, with y before the verb.

Now for gager. Would you believe that it is the same word as the English wager?  Historically, in northern France, there was confusion between g and w. Which means that a warden is the same as a guardian or a gardien, a wasp is the same as a guêpe (a guespe in Old French), and a warrior is the same as a guerrier (a guerrëor  in Old French). Many other words have a similar parallel development, and it is interesting to note that many of the words (in both English and French) have their roots in both German and Latin.

Finally, the sequence of tenses. You may wonder why je gagerais, literally I would bet or wager, is not followed by the subjunctive. After all, it’s not certain that he won’t come, or there would be no reason to lay a bet, right? But the fact is that your statement expresses a high degree of certainty. Why would  you place a bet that you thought you would lose? 

By the way, I can’t tell you how many times I have looked too quickly at this verb and misread it. My eyes see the letters, but my brain reads gagnerais instead of gagerais. The  difference? I would win vs. I would bet. Maybe you’re not a betting person–hence the conditional mood–but in this case, you are sure you would win. There is, after all, a completely accidental but deeply intuitive connection between gager and gagner.

Alternate audio file link: je-gagerais-quil-ny-ira-pas

Tu as dû verser des arrhes?

Tu as dû verser des arrhes?

tew ah dew vair-say day ZAAR? Click below to hear this. 

Did you have to pay a deposit?

Surely this is one of the funnier-looking words in the French language. Where else will you find a double r followed by an h? It looks suspiciously un-French.

That’s because somehow, back when Latin was a living language, an h crept into the spelling, turning the Latin from arra to arrha. That may have been the fault of St. Augustine (born in 354 CE), who used the “h” form of the word in a couple of his sermons. One (very wild) guess would be that the h reflected a local or regional pronunciation of the word.

In any case, much as “the toe bone connected to the foot bone” and so on, the Modern French arrhes came from the Old French erre, which came from the Latin arra or arrha, which was an abbreviation of the full word arrabo, which came from the ancient Greek arrabon, which is probably related to the Hebrew word erabon.

In modern French, les arrhes (always in the plural) means deposit, down payment, earnest money, and other words that signify “money you put down to seal a verbal agreement”. In Old French, it could also represent a token of agreement or of a promise: a glove, a handkerchief, a piece of jewelry, for example.

At any rate, just so you can see that I didn’t make all this up, here’s the etymology of arrhes as given at this link : “Du latin arrha (ou arra) (« gages »), une forme abrégée de arrabo (« premier acompte ») ; du grec ancien ἀρραβών, arrabōn, du mot sémitique ערבון.” If I ever learn anything more about the Greek or the Hebrew words, I’ll tell you about that too!

In the meantime, note that you can say payer/recevoir/donner des arrhes, as well as other verbs, but a very common expression is verser des arrhes, which translates literally as to pour out a deposit. Before paper money, I suppose one really did pour out the coins from your purse into the hands of the recipient. It still feels that way when you watch the money disappear from your bank account.

Alternate audio file link: verser-des-arrhes

Je le dis sans arrière-pensées.

Je le dis sans arrière-pensées.

zhuhl dee sah zaa-reeAIR pah-SAY. Click below to hear this. 

I say it without ulterior motives.

Whatever it is that I am saying here (feel free to make it up for yourself), my motives are pure and transparent. No hidden agenda, no ulterior motives, no reservations. I am telling it as it is.

Since arrière means back, backwards, behind, and other synonyms, you might imagine that an arrière-pensée is an afterthought. Not so. That would be une pensée après coupa thought after the fact.

I suspect that the image behind une arrière-pensée (yes, the pun is intended!) is that you have a thought behind the conversation, or even in the back of your brain. You may not even be aware of it yourself, until someone calls you on it.

The other meaning of arrière-pensée is reservations. No, not for the restaurant. It’s the hesitation you feel about doing something, when you have a feeling that something isn’t quite right about it. You may well accept someone else’s plan or idea, but stipulate J’ai des arrière-pensées là-dessus, quand même (I have some reservations about it, all the same). And by next morning, you may be emailing about your pensée après coup. That’s where you change your mind and retract your approval of the plan.

Alternate audio file link: sans-arriere-pensees

J’ai perdu le fil.

J’ai perdu le fil.

zhay pair-dewl FEEL. Click below to hear this. 

I’ve lost the thread.

If you have been sewing, you are about to be in a lot of trouble. How can you finish making that dress for your granddaughter without your fil à coudre (sewing thread)? And if you have a cat, a dog, or a toddler in the house, you may have no clue where to begin looking for it. Not to mention how empty the spool may be by the time you locate it.

If you are in the midst of a conversation, you could be in an equal amount of trouble, though of a much different kind. J’ai perdu le fil in this context means I have lost the thread of the conversation. Apparently, someone is upholding a complicated line of reasoning, and not doing a very good job of it. It may be time to change the subject, or go visit the snack table.

You’ll be in the most trouble of all if J’ai perdu le fil refers to your own train of thought. Drawing a blank in the midst of telling a story can be frightening, as can losing a key word. “Could you please hand me the…the…the…um…” doesn’t communicate very well, and tends to generate irritation on the part of the listener.

So hang on to your fil, whichever kind it is!

Alternate audio file link: jai-perdu-le-fil

Tous les moyens sont bons.

Tous les moyens sont bons.

too lay mwaah-yaa saw BAW. Click below to hear this. 

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

I’m sure you noticed right away the distinct lack of cats in the French phrase for today. As a matter of fact, there are many ways to express this sentiment, and not one of them involves cats.

When I began to wonder how to say this common expression in French, I fell into a fantastic world of almost surrealist discussion. On the various websites I checked, I encountered Italian expressions involving cats for This is a tough nut to crack, descriptions of the gymnastic exercise called skin the cat, and a heated plea for the cessation of animal cruelty in idiomatic expressions.

I also found one equivalent expression in French: Il y a plus d’un moyen de plumer un canard, which means There’s more than one way to pluck a duck, accompanied by protests on the part of other native speakers that they had never heard of it. And the ever-popular but utterly unpicturesque Il y a plus d’un moyen de faire les choses (There’s more than one way to do things). 

So I settled for today’s phrase, which can be translated (awkwardly at best, I admit) as All means are good/valid. Naturally, this was also followed by an intense discussion of the exact implications of the phrase. Could it be The end justifies the means? Must the means be moral and licit, or might they be immoral and/or illicit? What if the means are moral, but the end is not?

Ultimately, I gave up on making any sense out of the discussion and offer you instead this bit of entertainment. Make of it what you will!

Alternate audio file link: tous-les-moyens-sont-bons