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Parlez-vous franglais? Boris Johnson’s mangled French is a nod to Churchill

·3 min read

Boris Johnson may have been channelling his inner Winston Churchill by adopting “franglais” in chiding French president Emmanuel Macron to “prenez un grip” and “donnez-moi un break” over the Aukus military pact.

The prime minister has credited the second world war leader with deploying “superb and menacing franglais” when he warned Gen Charles de Gaulle: “Si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai.” (Which roughly translates as: “If you double-cross me, I will liquidate you.”)

Though some other accounts differ, substituting the quote “double-crosserez” with “m’obstaclerez” (“obstruct me”), Johnson’s admiration for such linguistic acrobatics sees him describe Churchill in his biography of the former British prime minister as being “responsible for some of the greatest franglais of all time”.

Franglais has come a long way since the Norman Conquest of 1066, though the word – a (French) portmanteau of français and anglais – seems only to have been officially coined in 1959 by French grammarian Max Rat in an article published in France-Soir.

References to this macaronic language (a mixture, or hybrid tongue) appear in Chaucer and Shakespeare. The 19th-century American writer Mark Twain used a mixture of French and English in his book The Innocents Abroad for comedic effect. In the trenches during the first world war, English-speaking troops evolved “Tommy French”.

It was really popularised by the French academic, novelist and critic René Étiemble, in his denunciation of the overuse of English words in French, Parlez-vous franglais?, in 1964.

But it was from the 1970s onwards that it really entered popular culture in the UK. The PG Tips tea company advertised their wares with a cycling chimp competing in the Tour de France and the catchphrase “Avez-vous un cuppa”. Another fictional practitioner was Miss Piggy, a character in the Muppet Show, whose glamour was underscored with her overuse of “moi” and “mon petit cheri”.

In the UK, the satirist and columnist Miles Kington began writing his “Franglais” columns – a comical mixture of English and French – in Punch magazine, later published as a series of books entitled “Let’s Parler Franglais!”. After he died in 2008, the BBC headlined its obituary: “Au revoir Mister Franglais.

The 1975 hit film Monty Python and the Holy Grail saw French castle guard John Cleese order his troops to “fetchez la vache”, to their initial bemusement, before they fetched and catapulted a cow at the Britons. And the 1981 hit by Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, (Si Si) Je suis un rock star, was an absolute masterclass in the art of franglais, with lines including “Je habiter la a la south of France, voulez vous partir with me?” and “come and rester le with me in France”.

Franglais has seen “le soccer”, “le hotdog” and “le weekend” gain traction, with the latter reportedly particularly irritating to French purists. In 2013 there was a famous ban – by French governmental decree – of the word “hashtag”, replacing it with the French equivalent “mot-diese”.

Perhaps the best – or least proficient – exponent of the craft was the character Del Boy in the hit comedy series Only Fools and Horses. His examples, said with absolute conviction, included the phrases “mangetout” and “bain marie”, for “no problem”, “bonnet de douche” (shower cap) for “excellent”, and “creme de la menthe” for “the very best”.

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