French is rich in words that express disdain for the English and vice versa. This is not a war of words – but in words. Our economies may be heading down the pan or bidet at similar speeds, but there is still something the British and French both do well, and that is mutual loathing.
The cross-Channel triple-A-rated spat over whose credit rating deserves to be downgraded was carried out in a language loaded with centuries of the most intimate antipathy. We compared them, fiscally, with Greece; they pointed out that it would be better, economically speaking (and, by implication, in every other way) to be French rather than English.
Newspapers like to call these ritual jousts a “war of words”, but at its most fundamental Anglo-French rivalry is really a war in words, an enmity embedded deep in our respective tongues: if language is thought, we grow up thinking anti-French thoughts, and from the earliest age they learn to speak a vocabulary suffused with anti-English sentiment.
French words or phrases referring to England are frequently slighting, alluding to our peculiar sexual habits, grim cuisine and duplicity. In just the same way, British linguistic references to France point up their general slovenliness, laziness, trickery and peculiar sexual habits.
Take contraception. In an odd etymological reciprocity, what we call a French letter they call a “capote anglaise”. Mind you, when it comes to implied prophylactic responsibility, we also take a linguistic swipe at another close neighbour, with the Dutch cap.
No other countries exchange offensive linguistic sexual innuendo like England and France. “French kissing”, for example, presumably stands in implied contrast to English kissing, restrained, perfunctory — and much more hygienic. Syphilis is “la maladie anglaise” in France, but used to be “French gout” in this country. (The clap is a widespread international language cudgel: the Russians called it the Polish disease, and the Italians associated it with the Spanish.) “Le vice anglais”, the English vice, is the French euphemism for flagellation whereas we associate sadomasochism with Franco-Austrian tastes, combining the Marquis de Sade, the French aristocrat, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian novelist who explored sexual submission in his book Venus in Furs.
For years, pornography was known as “French postcards”. When a Frenchwoman has her period, she may mutter grimly “les anglais ont debarqués” (the English have landed), a reference dating back to the Napoleonic wars and the unwelcome arrival of redcoats.
In some instances the tit-for-tat duel is so symmetrical that it is hard to believe it is not intentional. To take “French leave” is to help yourself to an unauthorised and undeserved holiday; precisely the same concept in French is rendered as “filer à l’anglaise”.
Nowhere is the linguistic sparring more intense than at the dinner table. When Jacques Chirac wanted to give maximum offence to the British he started a food fight: “You can’t trust a people who cook as badly as that.”
They are “frogs”, a sneer at the French willingness to eat pond life when coated in sufficient sauce. (The French render this rather proudly as “les mangeurs de grenouilles”). We are “les rosbifs”, overcooked, unimaginative, stolid and predictable. The most boring dishes in French cuisine are labelled English: “légumes à l’anglaise” are boiled vegetables; “une assiette anglaise” a plate of cold meat; “crème anglaise” essentially custard. French fries and French toast seem like culinary compliments in comparison.
But we repay in kind on the cricket pitch. “French cricket”, of course, is not cricket, but a simplified game for children that continentals can understand. A “French cut” is a lucky shot by a batsman who has no idea what he is doing.
Only the Dutch get a similar linguistic pasting in English: “Dutch uncle” (a harsh critic), “Dutch elm disease” (tree killers), and “Dutch courage” (alcoholic bravery). But distance seems to lend tolerance: the most notable negative term associated with Germany is “German measles”.
Entwined in both English and French is the conviction that the other is prone to bad language. An English speaker of a certain age will still say, when uttering an expletive, “pardon my French”. During the Hundred Years’ War, the English swore so much they were referred to by the French as “les goddams”, and in Joan of Arc’s time as “les godons”. Intriguingly, this predilection for the phrase “god damn” earned us the name “godames” in Brazil and “gotama” in Somalia.
For similar reasons the robust- speaking British hordes descending on Calais for their duty-free are known dismissively as “les f***offs”.
The most basic mutual linguistic insults are terms derived from “French” and “anglais”: in French, the verb “anglaiser” means to cheat, sodomise or castrate. It also refers to cutting the muscles in the tail of a horse so that it sticks up — something, apparently, that no Frenchman would consider doing.
By contrast, the term “frenchified” is freighted with suggestions of dandification, effeminacy, and untrustworthiness, an image sustained and reinforced in English literature. Almost every use of “monsieur” in Shakespeare depicts an individual as fussy and foppish: “France is a dog-hole and it no more merits/ The tread of a man’s foot,” as Parolles says in All’s Well That Ends Well.
Queen Victoria herself weighed in, with the very definition of “frenchified”: “I fear the French are so fickle, corrupt and ignorant, so conceited and foolish that it is hopeless to think of them being sensibly governed … they are incurable.”
And yet with the suspicion and jealousy entrenched in our respective languages comes a sneaking admiration: the French words adopted into everyday English imply a respect for their style, sexuality and savoir faire: chic, élan, connoisseur, soigné, adroit, avant-garde, sang-froid. Indeed, such is our love of French words that we use many they have forgotten: corduroy, aide-de-camp, léger de main and pièce de résistance.
The sturdy English words that have taken permanent root in France also imply a sneaking respect for Anglo-Saxon practicality: le weekend, le fair play, le blog, le tweed, le fast food and le low-cost-airline.
Insulting, aggressive and secretly appreciative, no two languages are more firmly entangled than English and French. No wonder the rest of Europe can only look on bemused as France and Britain trade verbal insults.
This is the shared language of a love-hate relationship: to anyone else it is double Dutch.