Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, please excuse our French…
Q: No, come on now. I want to celebrate all things French this week. Get into the spirit.
A: Okay fine, hand us some of that brie then.
Q: Wee wee, monamy.
A: That is NOT how you spell that. It's “oui oui, mon ami”, meaning “yes, yes, my friend.” Wait, are you tricking us into explaining things?
Q: Sacré bleu! I would never do that. Ahem. Actually, what DOES “sacré bleu” mean?
A: Okay, so we're doing this. It means “sacred blue” – a less offensive way of saying “sacred God” (“sacré Dieu”) – kind of our version of “oh golly gosh”. In France, it's written “sacrebleu” but no one really uses it these days.
Q: So it's a bit like how Aussies never really say “put another shrimp on the barbie”. Or “I ride a kangaroo to work”.
A: Yes, something like that.
Q: Okay, I have a few other French terms I'd like to get your opinion on.
A: Sure. Hand us some more of that brie then.
Q: “Déja vu”?
A: No, we just really like brie.
Q: Er, I meant “déja vu” is my next one.
A: Oh okay. It translates as “already seen” and is from the early 20th century.
Q: I guess it couldn't have been from earlier than that, because everything hadn't been seen a first time yet.
A: Um. Okay.
Q: Next one is a bit of a touchy subject. Haha. “Touché”?
A: This does indeed mean “to touch”. Apart from being seen in the sport of fencing, it's widely used by smug people at dinner parties to acknowledge someone's clever point made at their expense.
Q: It sounds like you might be a fan of such parties.
Q: What about a “fait accompli”?
A: This is from “accomplished fact” – and dates from the mid 1800s. It's when you have no choice but to accept something because it's already happened. For example, the theme of this week's Q&A is a fait accompli.
Q: And “faux pas”?
A: Pronounced FOH-PAH. It translates as a “wrong/false step” – meaning a social blunder. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, its first English appearance was in 1676.
Q: I tend to make multiple social blunders. But what's the plural?
A: That's a great question. It's actually spelt the same – faux pas – but to speak it, the second word would be pronounced “PAHZ” not the singular “PAH”.
Q: Last one, I see it a lot, but never really know what's going on. “Vis-a-vis”?
A: This is pronounced VEEZ-AH-VEE, and translates as “face to face”. It can be an adverb, noun or adjective to describe being face to face or someone who is opposite. We also see it used as a preposition, meaning “regarding” or “in relation to”.
A: “We need to talk to the caterer vis-a-vis getting more brie.”
Q: Ah yes, that's how I often see it. Well, thanks for this little
A: That's another one – meaning “head to head” as an adjective or – as you used it – a noun meaning “a private conversation or interview”. So you could sit vis-a-vis during a tête-à-tête. And this tête-à-tête is over.
Q: Sacré bleu!
Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!