Mayday! Mayday! Help, it’s May Day.

happy may day

What does the month of May have to do with the call of distress? Nothing really, it’s just an example of how words slip from one language into another. The distress call actually came from the French phrase, “m’aidez” which sounds similar to “mayday” and means – “Help me” in French.

English is full of French words. That’s because in 1066, William the Conqueror did what he was best known for and conquered England – and he just so happened to be a French-speaking man. For about 300 years, the language of the English court was French and all official documents were written in French. That’s why today about one third of English words are of French origin.

jogging in FrenchLanguages are always evolving and the British and other English-speaking people have never been too bothered about foreign words cropping up in their own language. In fact, we rather welcome them.

The French, on the other hand, are quite protective of their native tongue and try to keep foreign words out. They have an official French Language Society (Académie Française), for the purpose of keeping their language pure and beautiful. This society isn’t a recent invention either, it was established way back in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu,

But, despite their best efforts, English words just keep popping up in the French language. Many of them keep their English meaning, such as weekend, meeting, and shopping, but other words that sound familiar to English ears, have a different meaning in French. The French seem especially fond of taking English words that end in “ing” – and changing their meaning in French.

french man 03For example, in France:

You park your car in a Parking (parking lot)
You wash your hair with Shampooing (which is pronounced something like shampwa)
To dry your hair you need a brushing (a blow-dry)
If you want a makeover, you get a relooking
To see if you are busy on a certain date, you check your planning (calendar / agenda)
If you are the sporty type, you put on your baskets (sport shoes) and your sweat (jogging suit – pronounced sweet) and go footing (jogging).

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Sometimes however, just as we English-speakers do, the French interject a foreign word into their sentence just to sound cool!

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25 thoughts on “Mayday! Mayday! Help, it’s May Day.

  1. Encore le Franglais is more confusing than helpful when you’re an Anglo living here. I’m a bit OCD and do try my best to use the French rather than the English or Franglais terms, but, as sure you know isn’t easy. Off back to the aul sod Northern Ireland, next week for visit, and my turn for annoying grammar and language lessons. Poor Pascale will need me to do a lot of translation despite her excellent English, and some knowledge of Ulster/Scots. Bonne weekend, et bonne vacances. A bientot biloute, aux le sauvage nord.

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  2. Really interesting about the ing words. I’m a bit surprised because I knew the French were protective of their language so thought the English words that they were likely to use would be ‘newer’ words, maybe related to technology for instance. ‘Shampwa’ must be my favorite! 🙂

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    • They try hard, but language isn’t really something that you can control – especially now that the world is so connected. It is odd how they take the “ing” words and turn them into nouns. Really sounds strange the first time you hear them. 🙂

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    • The one that makes me giggle is the “sweat” (sweatsuit) pronounced “sweet.” First time I heard it, I thought the person was saying it was sweet (as in really nice).

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  3. When you’ve been in France a while like I have you forget that actually in English you don’t go to the parking but car park (British English!) – it sounds completely normal to me now. I throw funny French words into sentences all the time without even realising it and wonder why my non-French speaking friends look at me funnily. le “dressing” is a good one, for a walk-in closet! Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

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    • Yes, English verbs turning into French nouns now seems perfectly normal to me too.
      I don’t know how I left out “dressing” since I’m so happy to have one in my new apartment!

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  4. Working in France for the first time, I was really amazed at how many English words they use… They talk about “Deals” and “Logins” and “Business” for example. The English language influence seems even more apparent to me in the business world.

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    • I imagine there are more English words adopted in business, because English is really the language of commerce. I think all French students taking business courses have to take English.
      It’s interesting that wherever you go, those who speak the most languages are those who are selling things.

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  5. Makes it quite confusing when talking to the French. They’ll put in an anglicized word, so I should know it but because I am not expecting it and because of the accent, I end up not understanding the English word! This post made me think of a great little video called the History of English in 10 minutes. Would be great if one existed for French 🙂 #AllAboutFrance

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    • I love this video. I used to have it on my site, but then the link quit working. Maybe I’ll add it again.
      I too have had the experience of not being able to understand the one word in a French sentence that was English. How embarrassing… 🙂

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  6. Great article, and very amusing. We often marvel at expat teenagers in France who seem to have a language all of their own, slipping so easily between English and French, and a mix of both within the same sentence!

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