Finally, the French have their mot juste

All languages have their gaps. But how did it take so long for France to catch up with "French kissing"?


“The Germans are a cruel race,” Blackadder once observed. “Their operas last for six hours and they have no word for ‘fluffy’.” Actually, they do – flockig – but what about other peoples and languages? What conspicuous and startling absences remain in the dictionary?

I knew that the French, with their strict linguistic ways, had some very surprising gaps. It is impossible to say in French that anything is “shallow” – there’s no word for it, and you have to say that a river is peu profond. One thing I would never have guessed, however, is that it has, until now, been impossible to say “French kiss” in correct French.

We have quite a good range of terms for kisses in English – smack, smooch, snog, butterfly kiss, peck, osculation (in technical mood). Is “mwah” now a noun or verb? “I gave him a great big mwah.” Surely. There are a few in French – embrasser, bécoter, biser, baiser (sometimes – use this one with care). And now Le Petit Robert has decided to include the wonderful word galocher for what English soldiers, returning from the great war, called a French Kiss. It has something to do with ice skates – either the slithery motion, or possibly the noise of pulling damp feet out, I expect.

Languages are haphazard things which build up to cover eventualities, and sometimes pass over quite important facts without finding a name for it. Byron says in 'Don Juan' that we might not have a word for longueurs in English, but we have the thing in abundance. It is surprising that we haven’t developed a word for Schadenfreude, so general is the English tendency to enjoy somebody else’s discomfiture.

These gaps have produced a series of amusing but perhaps not very reliable books by Adam Jacot de Boinod called The Meaning of Tingo, identifying things which other languages find it necessary to name. Some of these are obviously amusing coinages or eccentric idioms in the original language, or hardly likely to have much common use beyond the dictionary – the 27 names for different sorts of moustache in Albanian, for instance. But there certainly are some areas of existence that individual languages find it surprisingly necessary to go into. Italian has the lovely word nipotame, meaning “a crowd of nephews and nieces” – something probably more common in the Catholic past than now. Bengali is very intricate in its names for family relations, always specifying whether an aunt is on the mother’s or the father’s side, whether a sister is older or younger than the speaker. It must seem like a strange gap to many learners of English that the language doesn’t distinguish between the brother of your spouse and your spouse’s husband – both are just “brother-in-law”, an inadequate sort of qualification of brother in the first place. Georgians must wonder why English has to say “the day after tomorrow”, and not, like sensible people, have a single word for it.

It’s possible that somewhere, tucked away in technical vocabulary or in slang, are words for many of these phenomena – a favourite example of Mr Jacot de Boinod is the Japanese word bakku-shan, which is supposed to mean “a woman attractive from behind, but not from the front”. I’m sure an English dialect has a vivid idiom for that one, somewhere, just as Le Petit Robert has not just now invented the word galocher for something French people have been doing to each other for centuries. They have simply given some recognition to it.

More appealing are those features of foreign languages which have structural implications, and which display quite a different method of looking at the world. Cherokee has some remarkably insulting verb forms which are exclusive in meaning – in other words, you can say “we – but not you – are invited” in Cherokee, specifically leaving out the person you’re talking to. How much social embarrassment this would save. The problem of saying to a hanger-on “Actually, John has invited us to dinner”, only to find that your interlocutor thought you meant him as well – that would never arise in Cherokee. You would have to say: “John has invited us, but not you, to dinner.”

In the meantime, I congratulate the French on their new addition, and look forward to trying it out at the first opportunity. Galochez-moi, monsieur.

Morgan’s not a morning person

Morgan Freeman signed up to do a publicity tour and a series of interviews with his co-star Michael Caine to promote a bank-heist/magic tricks movie. In the middle of a television interview with Seattle’s Q13 Fox News’s This Morning, it all got too utterly much for the laid-back Mr Freeman. Perhaps lulled by the gripping question to his colleague, “Michael, you have a bit of a history in the recent past in magic-based movies,” Mr Freeman let his eyelids fall; his head began to droop; he showed every sign of falling asleep.

He subsequently remarked, amusingly, that he was testing the new Google Eyelids program. But if he were to have fallen asleep, who could blame him? You start out as an actor, full of idealism, dreaming of playing Rosmersholm on Broadway. But before you know, it you are being paid millions to pull faces in front of green screens, and, still worse, listen to journalist after journalist say with every appearance of sincerity and purpose: “Michael, you have a bit of a history in the recent past in magic-based movies.” You can either say: “Oh, for Christ’s sake.” You could ask the journalist if he learnt the English language recently. You can just choose to fall asleep. Or you can smile and play the game, and pretend to answer the question seriously. I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test