Je fais du shopping, tu fais du shopping, elle fait du shopping …

September 15, 2009

It is the time of year when people buy their offspring winter coats far better than any winter coat they themselves have ever owned – at least, since their own parents bought them a winter coat far better than anything they themselves had ever owned. 

In our case, this led me to use the online Verbaudet catalogue at a moment when I should technically have been doing the job I am paid to do. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, I thought – I’ll have a look at the French site too. I often do this sort of thing (though never at work. No. Not ever. No sirree.) I find it a good way of picking up more specialist items of vocabulary.

 Still, there’s “specialist” in the sense of “relating to a particular or narrow field” and “specialist” in the sense of “I think you may have made this up” and clothing, especially children’s clothing (where “taupe” and “bois” are apparently legitimate colours) is an area in which examples of the latter proliferate.

I have picked five items from the said Verbaudet catalogue which I think demonstrate this very nicely.

Un nid d’ange (literally, “angel’s nest”) is, from what I can make out, a baby sleeping bag in which the arms have no freedom of movement.

Un body (loan word from English) is the same as the garment of the same name fashionable for adult women fifteen years ago, but much smaller. In other words, it’s a (usually) short-sleeved vest with a gusset.

Une combinaison-pilote (literally, “pilot’s all-in-one”) is a boring old snowsuit.

Une chancelière (literally, I presume, a “chancellor’s wife”) appears to be a “cosy-toe”, a sort of integral sleeping bag for use in a buggy.

Un dors-bien (literally, “sleep well”) – I confess this one has stumped me. I cannot tell it apart from “un pyjama” which is what the call most of the babygro-type products on the site. Answers on a postcard please. 

Of course, no one is a linguistic hero when there are products to sell and money and consumer gullibility are powerful talismans to your typical retailer. Nevertheless, this brief and so far shallow entry raises two questions for me.

Firstly – if you ask a French person why they think French is a better language than English (don’t worry – they all do) he or she will quite probably respond that French is a language of precision. English, the theory goes, deals with the challenge of a new concept by simply making up a new word to go with it. This, Francophiles argue, is sloppy and easy. The French solution is to use what is already available and modify the way it is put together with other elements to express a particular nuance or even new and fresh idea. 

How, I wonder, would such a view cope with loan words (and faux amis) like “un bloomer” (frilly knickers) or “des straps” (shoes with a velcro or buckle and strap fastening in place of laces), not to mention composite loan word monsters like “un babycook” (a blender for producing baby food) or even bits of French words glued together almost à l’australienne – as, for example, “un pantacourt” (children’s three-quarter length trousers – if I say “Tintin” you will surely know exactly what I mean)? Who do French linguistic chauvinists blame for this? The Americans? The turncoat Canadians? Perfidious Albion? Their own degenerate youth? 

Second – is it just possible that they find our words for such things as bizarre and silly as we may find theirs? Does it make less sense to call a collarless jersey with buttons “un tunisien” rather than “a Henley top”? True enough, the idea of a baby wearing a real “combinaison pilote” is ridiculous – but then, how often do British babies really need a “snowsuit”?

And does Petit Bateau’s doudou lapin imprimé à fleur avec son bloomer (from the “doudoushop”) make sense in any language?


9 Responses to “Je fais du shopping, tu fais du shopping, elle fait du shopping …”

  1. Dee said

    All too true! Came up against the exact same problems with clothes for ‘Les Monstres’ when first moved to Belgium. Once head recovered from that, it was time to start decoding the meat products in La Boucherie….”Oiseaux sans têtes” still has me stumped.

    Nice blog and I love that you named your daughter ‘Piaf’. One of my all time favourite chanteuses.

    • papaetpiaf said

      Thanks for the message. In food terms it’s “pet de nonne” that sticks in my mind …

      Hope it won’t disappoint you if I tell you that Piaf is a nickname rather than my daughter’s real name which is much more prosaic – though it does give you a good clue to her middle name …

  2. nurmisur said

    I read some of your posts below and can relate to most of it. I’m portuguese, my husband was born in France and currently we live in Canada. We have a 20 months old and we’re trying to teach her portuguese and french at home(we will let english for school).
    It’s so cute to listen to her sayin ‘Oh, non’ and the way she says ‘papa’ with a very french accent.
    I can tell that she understands both portuguese and french but I share your doubts about her learning vocabulary just from the two of us.
    I’ll be back to your blog.

    • papaetpiaf said

      Really pleased you like it. Good luck with your own “experiment”! I guess Canada’s a better place than most in terms of understanding of bilingualism …

  3. Sally said

    Hi – just to let you know there’s an award for you at mine if you fancy posting it and passing it on. Love the blog, too.


  4. SurfAnna said

    Hi! I find those clothes names soooo cute. Especially “Nid d’ange”… But I understand and share your doubts about the differences of those products. I used to work for a baby website and couldn’t understand why some pyjama was calles this and the other on e -very similar- that. ^^
    A propos: a “chancelière” isn’t a chancelor’s wife, it’s the chancelor herself. That’s what we call Angela: a chancelière. 😉

    • papaetpiaf said

      Thanks for the support and glad you like the blog.

      You’ve surprised me about the “chanceliere”. I suspect that originally (ie before the 20th C) mean a chancellor’s wife and I thought I perceived a trend, as in English, to use a masculine noun for the position (regardless of who fills it) so that Angela would be “le chancelier”, Thatcher (once upon a time) “le premier ministre” and so on.

      Still, the French are nothing if not surprising … Thanks for the info in any case, I won’t get it wrong again!

      Hope you keep reading.

      All the best


  5. […] Je fais du shopping, tu fais du shopping, elle fait du shopping … […]

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