Language notes: words of generosity

Charitable or parsimonious, which are you?

22 November 2017
By Justin Postlethwaite

The Anglo-Saxon tradition, dating back to the 1830s, of providing tradesmen with a post-Christmas gift or ‘box’ as a bonus reward for their year of hard work, gave rise to December 26 being called ‘Boxing Day’. It is a bank holiday in the UK, but not in France, when it’s back to work, post-Noël.

This does not mean, however, that the French do not enter into the spirit of giving around now. Etrennes are Christmas/New Year gifts of money for certain people who carry out local services, such as a concierge. A postman or binman might hang around for a little tip, and upon receiving even the smallest of donations, he/she would do well to heed the French phrase ‘à cheval donné on ne regarde pas la denture’ – a literal equivalent to the English phrase ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’.

As in English, too, the word ‘generous’ can reflect volume as well as kindness, such as ‘se verser généreusement à boire’ – to pour yourself a generous measure.

If being overly generous is anathema to you, stick to the French phrase ‘charité bien ordonnée commence par soi-même’ – charity begins at home. Be careful though, or you will be accused by the chattering classes of being radin (stingy or cheapskate). Other words to look out for are avare, pingre and parcimonieux.

If you suspect someone’s intentions are less than pure, you might say ‘Tu fais ça par pure générosité?’ – Are you doing that out of the kindness of your heart?

Sometimes wanting to be generous has limitations – a sentiment perfectly summed up by the writer and moralist Joseph Sanial-Dubay, back in 1813. He said: “Les personnes les plus disposées à se montrer généreuses sont précisément celles qui n’ont pas les moyens de l’être.” Those most disposed to generosity are exactly those without the means to be so.

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