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Vocab lessons tackle the press

What is a grenelle and how would you say ‘red letter day’ in French? A book can help your French news vocabulary

30 August 2010

Reading newspapers and magazines involves getting to grips with a different set of vocabulary and phrases than that used in everyday speech.

Eye-grabbing headlines mean nothing if the cultural references are missing and even some of the top dictionaries cannot help.

As an example, the reliable 30th anniversary edition of the Collins-Robert Complete and Unabridged French-English Dictionary from 2008 does not include the word grenelle, which was brought back into parlance by Nicolas Sarkozy’s environment summit in 2007 and is now trotted out so regularly in French politics it has become a more consensual equivalent to UK or US politicians ‘declaring war’ on everything.

It means a general ‘round table’ discussion and its origins stem from the settlement that ended the 1968 May riots – in Rue de la Grenelle, the home of the Ministry of Labour.

While it also overlooks the word grenelle, Christopher Kirk-Green’s More Fluent French takes a step beyond the everyday bilingual dictionary and provides a vocabulary of the useful words and phrases – the locutions and informal French – that pop up to trip up many.

Newspapers will often use phrases like les blouses blanches (white coats) for doctors and other medical staff which is clear enough but the origins of the phrase to be “scared rigid” is a bit more hard to understand: être tétanisé par la peur. If you do something sur un coup de tête it means on the spur of the moment – which avec du recul (with hindsight) might have been better avoided.

The word pierre can have many meanings: vieilles pierres are old buildings; a jour à marquer d’une pierre blanche is a red letter day; a pierre angulaire is a cornerstone, a pierre d’achoppement is a stumbling block while someone who is making his contribution to something is said to have apporter sa pierre à quelque chose. Many people say it is ingarable in Paris – impossible to park – but others find they have no difficulty because they can put a macaron on their windscreen to show they are on official business.

Not the delicious biscuit kind of macaron but a badge as in the phrase Il n’y avait pas de problème, peut-être à cause du macaron collé sur mon pare-brise – there were no problems, perhaps because of the sticker on my windscreen.

On the sport pages, or on radio reports you might read something like this: Quel match! Un but d’anthologie – What a game! A classic goal. If a streaker had run across the pitch a very modest match report may have described someone running dans le plus simple appareil.

That would not be good for the temperament of most football managers who are known to be des bourreaux de travail – workaholics who are known to be a bit mal embouchés especially if a player commits an énormité – a howler. Depending on the crowd, the streaker could be greeted by a bronca – a chorus of boos – and would have to put up with the insults or avaler des couleuvres.

The book is packed with further phrases and vocab and with a bit of practise can help you décortiquer les événements – analyse what is happening in great detail.

More Fluent French £6.99
ISBN 978 185341 140 3
Packard Publishing

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