Bonne 14 juillet! Yes, it’s the French national holiday, known in English as Bastille Day though in French it’s normally just called le 14 juillet, or La Fête nationale. As French is one of the only two languages apart from English that I’m relatively competent in, I’ve written about it here quite a bit, so I won’t repeat myself. I just want to look at two French words that seem like they really should be English words, but aren’t.
The first is one I came across a few months ago while talking to someone about the French Open. They said, Federer is a great… tennisman: you say tennisman in English, don’t you? Of course, I said, No, we don’t, we just say tennis player. Knowing that the French language uses a lot of English words, and that both tennis and man are perfectly legitimate English words, they clearly didn’t quite trust me. They didn’t ask me if I was sure, but I could see in their eyes that they didn’t quite believe me.
It was a bit annoying, because to me tennisman sounds so ridiculous that it seemed obvious that it’s not a proper English term. Tennisman: it just sounds so silly! But as I thought about it, I could understand their perspective. It sounds silly to us, but not necessarily to a French speaker. And we say sportsman, so why not tennisman, or –woman? And it only sounds silly to us because we’re not used to hearing it, but are used to hearing tennis player. If we’d been saying tennisman for years, then tennis player would sound weirdly formal, I’ll bet. It just goes to show how what’s right and wrong is pretty arbitrary, and not necessarily based on any strict language rules. And it’s interesting how other languages use English, but put their own spin on things, probably based on the unique way they use English words on the natural sounds of their own language. And tennisman does sound ok in French. Say it to yourself in a French accent and see what you think.
The other word I want to look at is cyclisme, the French word for cycling. Again, you could understand how a French speaker would assume that cyclism is the English word for le cyclisme. Lots of English words end in –ism, but again, cyclism sound a little strange to us, because –ism is usually used as a suffix to refer to a belief system, an artistic style, or a system of governance. I think the French use of cyclisme is curious though, because I think it says a lot about the differences between opinions on cycling in different countries. In France and Belgium, cycling is a bigger deal than it is in most English-speaking countries. For us it might be a sport, but more often it’s a basic means of transport, or perhaps a way to get some light exercise.
But in France and Belgium, it’s a much more popular sport, and a bike is often seen primarily as a racing machine, rather than something practical. So perhaps for them, maybe cycling is more than just a mere sport. Perhaps it’s a belief system, or a form of art, and therefore it makes more sense that for them it’s an –ism, rather than a prosaic –ing. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but have a look at the Tour de France over the weekend, and see what you think. Et passe une belle journée!