Many French expressions have found their way into everyday usage in the Anglophone world. Think of fait accompli, for example, or le mot juste. Even that (allegedly) archetypal British character trait, sang-froid.
I could throw in déjà vu as well, but you’ve probably already seen it.
There’s rather less linguistic traffic in the other direction, which is probably due mainly to the heroic – if Canute-like – resistance of the Academie Française. However, everyone in France knows what le weekend is, and top is a common interjection meaning, as it does in everyday English, ‘great’, ‘super’ or ‘ace’; possibly also even ‘sick’, although I’m not so far down with the kids that I can be entirely sure about that.
Of course, there are many French colloquialisms that haven’t crossed the language divide. Sometimes that may be because there is already a perfectly good English equivalent. Who needs la sourire de plombier (the plumber’s smile) when we already have the pleasingly alliterative ‘builder’s bum’ meaning exactly the same thing?
Sometimes, though, this failure to translate is for a less obvious reason. Here I’m particularly thinking of a very common French expression that I’d never encountered before settling in France, and this is it:
Do I even need to clarify? Oh alright then: ‘Yes, but no’.
We first heard this phrase one afternoon when we were playing Chrominos with Germain at the Club d’Amitie. (For the uninitiated, Chrominos is like dominos but you have to match colours rather than the number of dots; it sends your eyes spinning after a while.) One of us tried to put down a tile in what we thought was a perfectly legal move but wasn’t. “Oui, mais non”, said Germain and pointed out our mistake.
Naturally, having heard it once, we soon began noticing that it popped up in conversation all the time; we even use it ourselves now. Undoubtedly, it’s a very useful expression and, as a polite way of telling somebody they’re in the wrong, you do rather wonder why it doesn’t seem to have crossed the Channel.
It’s surely telling that the closest equivalent English expression is ‘Yes and no’ rather than ‘Yes but no’. That leaves a lot more scope and isn’t so definite a denial. After all, that would be a bit rude, wouldn’t it`?
Although it still means ‘no’. As in ‘not a snowball’s chance in Hell’.
Even ‘yes and no’ doesn’t entirely cut it for the British and that’s why oui, mais non has never really worked its way into common English usage. The point is that it’s a catch-all expression: you can deploy it in almost any relevant context. But the British need – and have – far more nuanced ways of conveying the same message.
Consider these well-known phrases, all of which, at root, are saying Yes, but no, but also have their own particularly British layer of meaning:
- “I’m not altogether sure that’s in the rules” – You’re a bloody cheat.
- “Not really my cup of Darjeeling, I’m afraid” – I’d rather poke out my own eyes with a sharp stick.
- “That’s a very interesting flavour” – This tastes disgusting.
- “I believe I’m next” – Don’t even think about trying to jump the queue, you bastard.
- “I hear what you say” – The opinion you have just expressed is utterly cretinous.
Do you get my drift?
(To which the only possible response, by the way, is: ‘Well, up to a point’).