Vocabulary Lesson

Vocabulary Lesson

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"Il est propre, ou pas?" Ou pas. One element of French parlance that never sits too well with me, the 'ou pas' at the end of a sentence always seems to make the speaker come across as a wee bit aggressive.

Something, perhaps, an angry mother might use with a toddler: "Are you going to eat that, or not!?"  But not a syntax this same angry mother would use with the directrice of her son's new school: "Can I have an appointment with you on Thursday, or not?" 

See what I mean?

Madame Directrice, however, seemed to have no reservations about asking us, "Is he clean, or not?" when introduced to my almost 3-year-old son. Il est propre, ou pas? Emphasis on the 'ou pas'.

Because, she continues, he will not be allowed to start school in September unless he is clean. My husband nods knowingly. This makes sense to him for some reason. "Non, il n'est pas propre, pas encore."

Uh…come again?

He may be a little crazy, dear, I thought to myself as my son twirled around the room, heading for a forbidden object, but he's clean!

O.K., so his face is a little grubby from the peanut butter and nutella sandwich he had for breakfast this morning (merci, imp, pour la recette), the part I missed with the wet-wipe, but he does get a bath every night, you know.

Three seconds into my inner tirade, however, I gathered from the context that 'clean' was not exactly what we were talking about here.

Potty-trained. Right! That's better. And no, he's not. Not yet. (But will be before September if I have anything to say about it.)

A quick glance in my French-English dictionary tells me that 'propre' means not only clean, neat or tidy (the only uses I ever had for the word), but also a house-trained animal or a potty-trained child.

Who knew?

A better question would be: how can it be that I did not know that? I mean, I moved here six years ago. I speak French. I do. So I have a bit of a southern accent — the result of living with a man from Toulouse — and I use words no Parisian would be caught dead using, but still...

Heck, I'm even certified to translate it! And I do it easily and well. Reading French these days, I'm happy to say, has become almost (but not quite) a pleasure. But still not enough of a pleasure that I would choose to read mundane information in French over the equivalent in English unless I had no choice. 

I know. I should be ashamed of myself. Here I am, always telling my students that if they want to increase their vocabulary in English, they should read, read, read. Otherwise, they might very well remain forever limited to the few hundred words they use in everyday life. This would appear to be my lot.

Just last week, for example, on the phone with our mutuelle, I needed to know exactly how much of the cost of a porcelain crown would be reimbursed. Except that, severely lacking in French dental vocabulary as I am, I had no clue what the word for 'crown' might be. A dilemma.

And an exercise in using twenty or thirty words to explain one small thing, when the one correct word would have sufficed had I known it.

Where does my new vocabulary in French come from, anyway?  Let's just say that Le Canard Enchaîné ensures that I am well versed in French political terminology, if nothing else.

But come across the topic of potty-training in French, I have not. And it was here that I realized that all of my kiddie info, all the stuff I read concerning children (when I have time to read at all), comes from publications in English.

Everything from what to do when they are teething to what to feed them when they won't eat anything has tended to come, over the last three years, from articles I find on the Internet.

Which, of course, does exactly nothing to improve my French vocabulary in an area where the mother of two young children in France desperately needs it.

So, I will grudgingly report, I've now pulled out and dusted off the book my mother-in-law discreetly shipped to us after spending a particularly stressful weekend with her rambunctious grandson—Laurence Pernoud's 'J'élève Mon Enfant'—and am weaning myself from all English-language child-rearing information.

You won't catch me up in arms over my child being called dirty again. No way.


Française de Cœur / Expatica

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