Les Anglais? Forty years ago, they were little trouble

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the first books I can remember acquiring is a Petit Larousse Illustre. The size, shape and colour of a building brick, this chunky volume, contains a French dictionary and encyclopaedia, and when I was at school I thought that it probably contained all the knowledge a Frenchman would need.

I hadn't looked at it for years, but the other day I wanted to check the origin of the word 'Kir'. I knew the drink was named after some Second World War hero, a priest if I remembered rightly, but couldn't recall anything about him.

Larousse didn't help. 'Kir' was not in the dictionary section, even though King-Charles was ('kind of English spaniel') and he wasn't mentioned in the encyclopaedia section, though it was nice to see Kipling, Rudyard, being given an entry in which he was summed up as being the full, vigorous expression of Anglo-Saxon imperialism.

What I had forgotten was that the dictionary part was separated from the encyclopaedia by a section on red paper containing non-French phrases. Even then they were segregating non-French imports into their language and forcing them to live in a ghetto. You couldn't help feeling that the editors of Larousse, Claude and Paul Auge, had derived a certain xenophobic pleasure in this separation, much as you feel immigration officers at Heathrow get a quiet satisfaction in making people with unusual passports go into a very slow-moving queue indeed.

So I have been looking to see what foreign dangers the French language had to put up with 40 years ago, and I have to say that Anglo-Saxon linguistic imperialism didn't seem to pose much of a threat in those days. Very few of the foreign phrases listed are in English. There is a scattering of Italian expressions and a flood of Latin, but it is almost as if English influence was limited to odd tourist knick-knacks.

One of the few ways of guaranteeing finding an English presence in a French list is to look up things under 'W', as the French don't have the letter 'W' and anything listed under 'W' is bound to be foreign, but here the only thing under 'W' is 'Walkover: English expression for a race in which only one horse takes part'.

Take two pages at random, 1148 and 1149, in the 'S' and 'T' areas. 'To be or not to be' is there. So is 'That is the question', which is, curiously, listed as a separate quotation. 'Time is money' is listed, and explained as 'English proverb: typical maxim of a practical nation, which knows that time, well used, will pay dividends'. Ah, those were the days. They also list 'Struggle for life' ('English expression made fashionable by Darwin') and 'The right man in the right place'.

But that's it. A pretty scrawny collection. Nothing else in English. Nothing else in any other language on those pages, come to that, except 'Thalassa, thalassa]' ('The sea, the sea]' ), not really one of the great Greek quotations of all time. Almost everything else is in Latin, suggesting that as late as 1954 French people were still letting Latin tags drop on the breeze.

I'm being a bit sniffy here, because I don't know one-tenth of these Latin tags. For instance, 'Sutor, ne supra crepidam'. Not only do I not know it, I don't know what it means - I, the proud holder of a Latin O-level. Well, according to Larousse, it means: 'Cobbler, go no higher than the shoe'.

And what does that mean? Larousse goes on to explain that it was uttered by the Roman painter Apellus, when a shoemaker ventured to criticise the way he had depicted a pair of sandals in a painting. The painter took this in good part, until, when the shoeman went on to be highly critical of the rest of the painting, he felt the man was straying outside his area of expertise.

I like that. I also like 'Suavi mari magno', which Larousee translates as 'Il est doux, sur la vaste mer . . .'. By itself this is meaningless, but the explanation reveals everything: 'This is the beginning of a verse by Lucretius in De Natura Rerum. The full sense is as follows: 'How sweet it is, when the storm rages out at sea, to stand on dry land and contemplate the terrible troubles of others'.'

Enough. Suffice it so say that I found the Abbe Kir, the Mayor of Dijon after whom the drink was named. Not in a French source. He was in the Collins English Dictionary.

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