Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fractured French

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.)


Unknown said...

Hmm...I guess I've been practicing fractured French all my life, despite the best efforts of my grandmothers and my teachers. It tickles me that Parisian shopkeepers offer gentle corrections. That is, except the ladies' room attendant at Gare d'Austerlitz who just grunted when I told her I wanted to "do the bathroom."

Anonymous said...

Just discovered your website through Lis at Attention All Shipping. Great post!

Going Like Sixty said...

You dad sounds like my kind of guy!

But you haven't done anything to elevate my confidence that speaking fractured French endears me to shopkeepers.

We often reverted to your dad's french when speaking to each other about which street we were on - or going to.

Early on in my blogging, Cheryl at BlookingCentral, replied
Murky Buckets, when I gave her a tip.
I had to ask. :)

The Birthday Girl said...

mom those are terrible

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Hey, I didn't make them up!

Another one is about a French fisherman who drowned:

Louis Cinq.

There are dozens.

My stepfather used to spout them (maybe when I was doing my French homework?). Anyway once I remembered one I remembered a bunch. All groaners, but is there any better kind of pun?

Polly-Vous Francais said...

P.S. birthday girl, thanks for checking in on the comments! You have some famous art work on this blog, you know. it's received rave reviews.

Anonymous said...


Jokes in the car? You were lucky. I had the singing family and none of us could carry a tune. My Dad always made up his own lyrics. Talk about hilarious.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Until Paris,
Well, it was Mad Magazine in the car. Singing is always a good idea. Sounds like you had fun!

Now it seems that everyone just listens to their iPods on road trips or, judging what I saw on my last US highway trek, all the kids are watching DVDs in the back seat.

Gideon said...

Very funny post I love franglais humour. One of my favourites is the old joke -

Q: Why do the French only have one egg for breakfast

A: Because one egg is un oeuf

Unknown said...

hey i have that set of napkins all 36 of them

Anonymous said...

I don't have the napkins, but I do have the book. It was originally my grandpa's. He served in WWI in France, and he had his own fractured French stories ("Un cafe avec sucre, s'il-vous plait." "Tout de suite, monsieur!" "Oh, that's okay. It's not too sweet for me!") Thus it was that this was a natural for finding its way into his hands in the fifties. I grew up with it, still laugh at it, fondly remember Grandpa with it.

Anonymous said...

ROFL. I remember that book-- read it in the sixties. Wonderful. Timeless. Double the fun because it involves two languages. Wish they'd reprint it.

Mary F. said...

"Fractured French" may have been my intro to the language. Was just thinking about it, thus found your blog. As a child my favorite was "Je t'adore," with an illustration of monsters/ghosts pouring in through a window. The caption was "They're coming through the windows."

Leo Toribio Pittsburgh, PA said...

When I was in high school, back in the fifties, I discovered "Fractured French" in a book store. I bought it, read it, enjoyed it tremendously! What prompted me to look up your web site was that two (original?) examples came to mind today.

What does a scarecrow wear? Ans: oat (haute) couture.

What do Quakers eat? Ans: oat (haute) cuisine.

Parisian Fields said...

A friend has just given us a box of the cocktail napkins (not a complete set, but a good selection), found at a flea market in Toronto. What a hoot! We hadn't heard of Fractured French before, but thanks to your post, we know a bit more. We shall comb the local libraries for copies of the books. Nothing like truly terrible bilingual puns to make us fall about laughing.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Parisian Fields, So glad you liked it!

FreeThinke said...

Delightful! You might want to add

"Tant pis tant mieux"

which means "My aunt feels better now that she's gone to the bathroom." ;-)

I'm so old I actually remember Pearson's book. We had a copy. Wish I'd been able to hang onto it.

My parents also had the cocktail napkins, and I think paper coasters, if I remember correctly. I was 9 years old in 1950. It was a great time to be alive. People knew how to laugh and have fun. You might enjoy Mary Lasswell's comic novels about the adventures of Mrs. Feeley, Miss Tinkham and Mrs. Rasmussen, also Mr. and Mrs. Cugat by Isobel Scott Rorick and Betty MacDonald's The Egg and I. Great fun, and very touching today considering all that has transpired since then.

Aaron Bredon said...

My mother had 'Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames' (mother goose rhymes)
It contained mother goose rhymes transcribed phonetically into french then translated back into english with a supposed analysis.
Humpty Dumpty becomes Un petit d'un petit - analyzed as a poem about an underage mother ehose child went to prestigious schools

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