Second State

At what point in the acquisition of a foreign language do you start to feel the balance tipping from ineptitude to mastery? When you’re no longer several conversations behind at a dinner party? When you’re no longer translating from English? When you can be funny, or when you start dreaming in that new language? For me, I think the turning point came when I realised that I could actually be a different person in French to the one I was in English. Language is, of course, a receptacle for the dominant myths and prejudices of a culture. So it was that in French I found I could be intellectual without being pretentious, I could be coquettish without being moronic, and I could be fiery without being hysterical. It is an incredibly liberating feeling, the moment you realise that you can be more than one person and get away with it.

The word con, France’s ‘C’ word is an interesting one and its uses are rich and subtle. Rarely employed for its original meaning (the female genitalia), it denotes, primarily, (both as an adjective and a noun), stupidity. Con is relatively gentle in comparison to its English counterpart. Indeed, in certain situations it can be used lightly and affectionately. Here are some examples:

Con comme un balai/comme une valise: As stupid as a broom/suitcase.

C’est pas con: that’s clever.

Mon con: my friend.

Eh ben, mon con: Well, my friend.

Oh, con!: Goodness gracious! (mostly used in the South West)

Couillon: a linguistic cross between couille (testicle) and con (stupid), meaning particularly stupid.

9 thoughts on “Second State

  1. French can’t be that difficult – after all, les français peuvent le parler. Or can they?

    At the tabac the other morning, Ninou la propriétaire remarked to me: “Trop de vin.” I looked baffled. I’d had not a drop.

    She repeated herself. “C’est vinteux.” Then it dawned: She was referring to the wind.

    This is the price one pays for living in the Midi.

    A demin….

  2. I have often found it a bit strange to my ears when a French person uses English/American expletives. They always seem to be using them to test their linguistic aptitude. I know this because after the words come out, like “Fucking American…” they look to me not as if I’m insulted but asking, “Did I use that word correctly?”

  3. I can’t tell you how often I want to use “con,” here in Los Angeles. But no one would get it, and then I’d have to explain it, and then all the power would go away… so I just fall back on that old chestnut: “fucking asshole.”

  4. Never in France would you use the word con ( same word exists in English form ) in the same frame of mind as in England. I detest people who use the English counterpart as it is always derogatory, vile and insulting.
    In France it has many meanings and forms and frankly is seldom used for its original meaning!

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