When I was growing up, I think I just assumed that all adults had studied French in high school. All my parents' friends seemed to speak at least a smidgen of French. They knew how to pronounce French -- not in a perfect Parisian accent, but in more of the phrase-book phonetic accent. Mare-see boh-coo. Jeuh-neuh-say-kwah. Fill-ay meen-yon.
And my stepfather was a master at that. He had a wickedly funny sense of humor, but I never saw him guffaw or laugh out loud. Instead, when some turn of phrase or wacky joke hit his funny bone, he pressed his lips together and the laughter emerged through the corners of his eyes, tears of mirth streaming down his reddening cheeks as his upper torso shook. It was really fun to watch him laugh, although one summer day when we were packed in the car on a 10-hour drive and we were reading Mad Magazine aloud for family entertainment, he had to pull the car over because he couldn't see the road any more from laughing.
One of his favorite jokes, which he could repeat and get the same teary-eyed kick out of, was, "What do the French say when the light's out in the bathroom?"
"Jeanne d'Arc." He delivered his own punch line before anyone could beat him to it. Pronounced, of course, in his perfect anglo-american accent. Then, if he had elicited sufficient appreciation from his listener, he would continue.
"What's the French word for 'lawn mower'?"
"Coup de grace." Pronouncing the 'p' of course.
I always imagined that these were the witty one-line stories that all grown-ups shared with each other at cocktail parties. And in a way, they were. The series of English-French puns, it turns out, came from a collection by F.S. Pearson called Fractured French, wildly popular in the 1950s. So popular, in fact, that the cartoons accompanying them were made into cocktail napkins and hors-d'oeuvre plates.
Here are a few more...
What do you call a timid beauty?
"Une pièce de résistance."
How do you say, "There are mice in the river?"
"Mise en scène."
What is a French father of twins?
"Pas du tout."
Okay, I'll stop now, lest I drive off the road and into a cornfield.
(P.S. Just updated, with illustration, more of which are here.)
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