Not too long ago, I resumed writing the sequel to my book, L’Amérique, which was published by a small university press. It’s a thinly disguised partly fictional autobiography—something I like to call faction (fact/fiction, get it?) and when it came out, it was relatively well received. I still get royalty checks in the single digit.
I stopped writing the untitled sequel because a book I wrote a year later, Montparnasse, was nominated by its publisher for a Pulitzer, and though I had no chance of winning, I had hoped the nomination might bolster my career. It didn’t. The Pulitzer people do not allow nominees to boast of this honor—no mention on the cover or the back cover blurb or, for that fact, anywhere.
This was disappointing and I was struck by the futility of it all. Here I had devoted more than two thirds of my life to the written word, and I was making more money correcting the works of others than authoring my own stuff.
But writing is what I do. An idea germinated, grew and bloomed, and I was once again dealing with L’Amérique’s protagonist, Jeanot, a French youth generally flummoxed by America, and his struggles to understand and fit in les États Unis.
In L’Amérique, I used a number of French phrases that either needed no translation, or whose meanings were made clear by their inclusions. In the sequel, I started thinking about how colorful French is, and how some commonly used phrases defy translation.
Être con comme un manche à balais. To be as stupid as a broom handle. The word con, by the way, cannot be translated into that horrible English term used to denote female genitalia. It merely means being stupid beyond comprehension and is now a banal, and sometimes even affectionate, insult.
Tu déconne! You’re kidding!
Jeter un coup d’œil means to throw a glance at.
Mêle-toi de tes oignons. Mind your own onions, or business. This is one of my favorite expressions. I use it as often as I can.
Avoir le cul entre deux chaises. Having one’s ass on two chairs. Straddling a fence.
Faire la tête. To make a head, or to sulk.
Casser les pieds. To break one’s feet. To annoy.
N’être pas sorti de l’auberge. To not be out of trouble yet.
Tu me fait chier. Literally, you make me defecate.
Un pet de madeleine. A nun’s fart. It’s a pastry. Really.
Être aux anges. To be with the angels; to be happy.
Ah, la vache! Oh, the cow! An expression of pained surprise. A vache can also be a nasty, vindictive person.
Il me court sur le haricot. He’s running on my bean. He’s getting on my nerves.
Avoir le cul bordé de nouilles. Literally, your ass is surrounded by noodles. You’re very lucky.
J’ai le cafard. I have the cockroach. I’m sad or blue.
Pisser dan un violon. Pissing in a violin, or wasting time.
Une histoire de cul. An ass story, or anything having to do with sex.
Poser un lapin. To put a rabbit; to not show up for a date.
Ça me fait une belle jambe. It gives me a beautiful leg. I couldn’t care less.
Faire l’andouille. To make the sausage; to act stupidly.
Remember: If you throw any of these expressions into a casual conversation, you’ll be considered a worldly person!
I love the French language.