The Right Word

Large Words

As someone whose life consists mainly of staring at a blinking cursor or the blank page, I know how hard it is to come up with just the right word.

It’s also true that having two languages doubles the hazards.

When I first arrived in Paris, I always thought it was so pretentious, those anglophones who’d drop in French words while speaking English. Please! I thought. Like you don’t know the word in your native tongue!

Well, turns out, I am now one of those people.

And I promise, I haven’t become pretentious. At least, I hope not. (Now is where you jump in and say that I’m as down-to-earth and lovely as ever).

This is just how the brain works. Certain words arrive in French first and I must grasp for the English word. I even have these brain freezes where I simply cannot find it (the word, not my brain, though sometimes I have moments where I cannot find my brain, either).

I hate when people ask for insta-translations. How do you say “such & such” in English? Or, “how would you say “whatchamacallit” in French?” My mind usually does this: zzzzzzzz.

It’s difficult not to feel stupid at this point. Hmm, I know both of these languages and yet I suddenly can’t remember anything in either one.

I know this is normal, though. (Right. I promise I’ve read articles that say this.)

As you can imagine, losing language is a riot for a writer. Living in France has basically meant I’ve become mediocre in two languages: French gets better, but is still bad; English gets worse. (Also, I’ll take a moment to mourn Spanish, which I used to know well. It’s gone, gone, gone. Or at least very well hidden).

So, with these two things in mind – the difficulty of finding the right word and the fact that we mix and match languages, anyway – I forgive awkward formulations and odd word choices.

Doesn’t mean I don’t still do a double-take, though.

I’m sure there are better examples of store names gone awry. But what impressed me was that I found these all within a five-minute walk. One after the other. It was on Rue Popincourt and Rue de la Roquette in the 11th.

All my shoes are sweet. (Love the superfluous apostrophe, too)

Store doesn't look too chic to me, but ok. It's the one next door that got me: "Lovie Style."

Is this a real name? Makes me think of a cross between Love and Lolita. Shudder.

Hmm. Three K's. (KKK). Sorry, said it in my head and that's what it came out to.

Help! Plastic Bags!

My favorite, in the 20th, though has to be this:

I wonder what happens in this bar.

Ann Mah has some great examples over on her blog, too. What signs have made you do a double-take?

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28 Responses to “The Right Word”


  1. 1 Valerie March 31, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Try it in 3 – In trying to spew French I forget a word and drop to Italian and then “speak the English” as if it’s my 2nd language. I still forget the occasional word and drop into French (or Italian) because, well, some words just want to come out easier in other languages! (And Hi!)

    • 2 paris (im)perfect March 31, 2011 at 1:48 pm

      Hi Valerie. This is *exactly* what happened to me when I first arrived in France. When I got tripped up in French, I would drop Spanish words in, not English. I was speaking some hybrid mix of Spanish-French-English! But that’s why I say I’m mourning Spanish. French started *replacing* Spanish, rather than continuing to work in tandem. I’ve read that if you don’t continue using your second language at the same time that you’re learning the third, this replacement happens. Really wish I had been working Spanish at the same time. Oh well. Hope it’s in there somewhere!

      • 3 Valerie March 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm

        I believe you are right – I worked so hard at my Italian the last 2 years, that I was afraid of “losing” it while immersing myself back into the French I’d let slide away after 30 years. Now, I continue to work at both – noting the differences and similarities (think it drove my French teachers nuts, however). Sometimes I listen to French music while I’m writing e-mails or reading something in Italian, convinced it will work – or at a minimum keep Alzheimer’s at bay as I age. You could say I’ve chosen “confusion” over “replacement.” It’s all very interesting, and I do not think pretentious – those who think it is are either naturally gifted linguists or haven’t ‘grown the new head’ that is required to learn a new language. It’s more than just “learning words”, that is for sure!

      • 4 paris (im)perfect March 31, 2011 at 11:01 pm

        You are totally doing the right thing! As long as you keep working both at the same time, then you will have access to both. My problem was that I didn’t keep speaking Spanish as I was learning French. I’d take confusion over replacement if it meant I still had a third language! Sure is more than just “learning words” as you say.

  2. 5 Lindsey March 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    You’re not alone :) And it’s only pretentious if the person was pretentious before they came to France! At least, that’s my opinion anyway.

    Where is that plastic bag shop?

    • 6 paris (im)perfect March 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm

      Hey there. Phew. Yeah, it’s just a fact of linguistics, not personality, right?

      The plastic bag shop is on Rue Popincourt between Rue Chemin Vert and Rue de la Roquette I think. (That’s where almost all of these shops were!) Are you in dire need of plastic bags? :)

  3. 7 Sweet Freak March 31, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I called it “American Speak”… these goofy Anglo signs. I love them!

    And I love (and totally empathize with) your line: “As you can imagine, losing language is a riot for a writer. Living in France has basically meant I’ve become mediocre in two languages…” Too true!

  4. 9 Franck March 31, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    I saw a MAID FOR MEN in the Forum des Halles in the heighties. And it is worse translated in French “bonne pour les hommes” (really?, très vendeur en tous cas)

  5. 11 SAS Fiction Girl March 31, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Makes you wonder how the multi-lingual do it. I took the Godfather Tour in Sicily; our guide was a Dutch woman who conducted the tour in Italian, German, English, and French by repeating everything she said in each of the four tongues, without a pause in between. Mind-blowing.

    • 12 paris (im)perfect March 31, 2011 at 10:59 pm

      It is mind-blowing. If I can get back up to 3 languages, I’ll be really happy. But even 2 is hard some days! (Erm, ok, so is even 1 on my really bad ones :) )

    • 13 David April 2, 2011 at 5:46 pm

      At the same venue in Sicily where you bought the Godfather Tour, I bought the tour of the “Roman Countess’ estate”. When our little group arrived at this very impressive estate, the “Countess” asked us what language we preferred – choices: German, Italian, English, French, and Spanish. Amazing! (and irritating)

      I’ve had the exact same experience of losing what was once decent Spanish, while acquiring modest French and stumbling around more and more in English. And the process was exactly the same as other’s have noted here – using Spanish words when the French wouldn’t come to my tongue, then gradually losing Spanish vocabulary AND grammer. Last year in Barcelona I thought I was in some kind of dream – a language nightmare.

      • 14 paris (im)perfect April 2, 2011 at 5:50 pm

        Hi David. Thanks for chiming in! Yeah, last time I went to Spain, I was with French and English-speaking people. Let’s just say it was hard moving among all three :)

  6. 15 Stephanie March 31, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    My English has gotten worse as well – so much so that when I read “I love the superfluous apostrophe.” My mind said something like this “cute. She wrote it in French to emphasis her point.” Ok so the spelling for apostrophe goes both ways but it took me a second to read it in my head as English.

    Oh language learning!

  7. 17 Lee Isbell April 1, 2011 at 1:37 am

    In learning French, I can carry on great mental conversations, or even outloud to the cats, but have the deer-in-the-headlights reaction to being addressed directly, and my response can come out in English, French, long-buried Spanish and/or a lot of hand-waving and sound effects. I used to be too embarrassed to say anything at all, but now blunder ahead.

    Pretension… After I return to the U.S. after being in France, I’m pronoucing Champs Elysees, Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe in French. In my mind, this is now correct, and to Anglicize sounds as awkward to my ear as saying “ain’t.” But I often feel the listener thinking “how pretentious.”

  8. 18 Ann April 1, 2011 at 8:21 am

    What a funny post, Sion! I’m glad you liked the signs on my blog, too. My husband and I always joke about the “apostrophe salesman” sneaking in an unnecessary sale. :)

  9. 20 jennyphoria April 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Oh you’re down-to-terre and lovely comme toujours. No. Wait….

    I was just talking about this same thing. I keep forgetting words in English, especially when I’m trying to translate from French. Instead of feeling like I’m gaining a second language, I often feel like I’m just losing my first!

  10. 22 Suzi hoggard April 5, 2011 at 4:58 am

    Hi there,
    I came across your lovely blog while perusing others. It’s great! I had only just read something similar to this in a book this morning , so true. I will try my best on myc next visit to Paris in May.
    Have a happy week
    Suzi

  11. 24 Poulette Paris April 6, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    I don’t know how to stop this from happening. And it just gets worse. Some of my friends reply to my emails saying i sound like a foreign person trying to write in English. Saying such phrases as “i was really content to have passed some time there”.

    You can never win. Now i sound like an arrogant snob when in my own country i pronounce french names the correct way.

  12. 26 Shannon May 3, 2011 at 2:10 am

    Lovely post lol, I feel exactly the same way. My husband is the translator — not me. One thing though, your favorite example has a broken image :( Can’t see it! The suspense is maaadddennning!

    • 27 paris (im)perfect May 3, 2011 at 1:38 pm

      Hmm, that’s strange. Could it be your browser? The image shows up for me. Now I feel like nothing can possibly be that funny after such a wait. Just a pub called “The Feel.” Made me chuckle :)


  1. 1 Franglish: Language Exchange in Paris « paris (im)perfect Trackback on April 5, 2011 at 2:37 pm

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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