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Buffing up your French pronunciation

The French you don’t learn at school - ‘chamois’

We look at a French word we use in English with very wrong pronunciation - ‘chamois’ Pic: Nor Gal / Shutterstock

One word whose origins and pronunciation are not usually part of the average English-speaker's school French language education – because children are not normally required to buff a car clean or remove condensation from the interior windscreen – is 'chamois'. 

The word describes (thanks, Wikipedia) “a type of porous leather, traditionally the skin of the chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), a type of European mountain goat, but today made almost exclusively from the flesh split of a sheepskin”. 

Just as well, because the typical English pronunciation –“shammy ”, is very wide of the mark in terms of linguistic correctness. 

It should be pronounced sham-waa

Read more: Really speak like a local… use these French filler words

Absorbent and non-abrasive, the leather was originally treated with fish oil and used in glove making. 

The first French chamois factories were established around Poitiers (Vienne) and Niort (Deux-Sèvres) under the reign of François I and craftsmen who specialised in the field were known 'chamoiseurs'. 

The Chamois Niortais Football Club, which currently plays in the country's second division (Ligue 2), is named for the industry – it was founded in 1925 by Charles Boinot, son of the owner of a local chamois shop – and the team badge features the silhouette of a chamois goat. 

A variation on chamois may be familiar to readers who wear spectacles – the small micro-fibre cloth used to clean one's lunettes is called a chamoisine

You keep it in your étui à lunettes (glasses case). 

Indeed any cloth used for buffing up items such as jewellery or silverware, or varnished furniture, is also referred to as a chamoisine.

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