Chilligate, and swings and roundabouts in language.

I had Mother over with my fabulous great aunt from the Parisian suburb, Chilly Mazarin, a few days ago.  I cooked a lovely meal for them on Friday, and in a name-related coincidence, the recipe happened to use some hand-crumbled dried chilli.

I don’t really want to admit to what I’m about to, but in the interests of everyone’s language studies, I’m going to confess to what will undoubtedly be known in the family from now on as “Chilligate”.

I felt and itch and without thinking, I picked my nose.  Yes, it’s a disgusting, unhygienic practice, I know.  I should have used a tissue or something.  Well, I paid for my poor hygiene.

I hadn’t washed my hands.

A few minutes later my right nostril was very much on fire and my great aunt, Annick (who speaks about three words of English), became curious about my unusual jerky movements. Why was my face red; was I crying?  Had the recipe not gone to plan? (We take food very seriously in France, so this presumably seemed a reasonable explanation for my abrupt change in behaviour) . I could have made up a lie, I suppose, but I wasn’t really in a creative mood by this stage, so I decided to ‘fess up to chilligate.  It was at precisely this moment, that my French failed me utterly.

How on earth do you say, “I picked my nose” in French, I wondered, tears streaming down my face, gently turning to steam against my nose.

Briefly, even Mum (who IS French) couldn’t remember.  She asked Annick who supplied: “Je me suis mis le doigt dans le nez.”

Four words in English. Count them: NINE in French. Along the lines of: I put myself the finger in the nose.

I laughed.  I mean, I put myself the finger in the nose. Really?!

David Sedaris, in his book, ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’, talks about similar French struggles:

“Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the glaze I’ve applied to my shapely jug?”

Of the above, I can say,

“Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the… jug?”

“Glaze” is one of those words that shouldn’t be too difficult to learn, and the same goes for “shapely.” I’m pretty good when it comes to retaining nouns and adjectives, but the bit about applying the glaze to the shapely jug—that’s where I tend to stumble.

In English, it’s easy enough – “I put this on that” –

but in French, such things have a way of biting you in the ass. I might have to say, (in French)

“Do you like the glaze the shapely jug accepted from me?”


“Do you like the shapely jug in the glaze of which I earlier applied?”

For safety’s sake, perhaps I’d be better off breaking the one sentence into three:

“Look at the shapely jug.”

“Do you like the glaze?”

“I did that.”

French has a deserved reputation for being difficult for English speakers for precisely this reason.  Mum was trying to explain to Annick why this was funny to me.  How could such a simple sentence in English be more than twice as complex in French and involve such a convoluted construction?  Mum, rather sagely I must say, offered the explanation:

“You have so many verbs in English!  And you make new verbs up all the time. You verbify nouns!” she said, being cleverly ironic.

We do.  How many people have you “friended” on Facebook recently, for example?  When did the noun, ‘friend’, become a verb?  About two years ago, it seems.

French is by comparison, (as are indeed all the so-called Romance Languages: Spanish, Italian and Portuguese) quite depleted in terms verbs compared to English.  There is no verb “to pick [ones] nose”, hence the convoluted construction: “Je me suis mis le doigt dans le nez”.  It doesn’t seem remotely complex to the French, it’s worth noting.

I thought this was rather a lovely, insightful explanation, and I found it quite comforting thought as I tended to my streaming nose, washed my hands and continued the meal.

Some of the constructions in French might be more complex but at least there are fewer verbs to learn. .. so it’s swings and roundabouts.


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One Response to “Chilligate, and swings and roundabouts in language.”

  1. Jeannie PHILLIPS says:

    Thank you for explaining this.
    My partner is always telling me to say a sentence back to front but breaking a sentence
    down into easy and for me manageable words is
    much better.

    Thank you.

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