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French Wit Posted by on Apr 23, 2019 in Culture, Geography, Literature, Vocabulary

When I was first living in France and learning French, understanding humour was one of things that took me the longest. As John discussed recently, a lot of this is due to the fact that so much humour depends on more than simply understanding the words. It’s also because, for the French, humour is an art!

Un chat adorable / An adorable cat

Un chat adorable / An adorable cat

Mon chat Brexit / My cat Brexit

I was recently reminded of the unique qualities of French humour by the recent news reports that the French Minister for European Affairs, Nathalie Loiseau, had apparently renamed her cat Brexit! It is reported that she wrote on her private Facebook page (so much for private!): “J’ai fini par appeler mon chat Brexit. Il me réveille en miaulant à la mort parce qu’il veut sortir, et dès que je lui ouvre la porte, il  reste planté au milieu, indécis, et il me jette un regard noir quand je le mets dehors.” (In the end, I named my cat Brexit. He wakes me up with his crazy meowing because he wants to go out, and then when I open the door he just sits there in the middle, undecided, and if I toss him out he stares daggers at me.”)

In any language, I think that image is just hysterical (or it would be if the consequences of Brexit weren’t so potentially serious).

Mise à jour / Update

One of my favorite North American ville francophone (French-speaking cities) has just received its latest éloges (accolades). After being named one of the world’s leading cultural destinations in 2016, Québec this year was named as the city with la plus belle rue du monde (the most beautiful street in the world). Better that I guess, than being known as the city with too many French people 😉 …

De l’humour et de la philosophieOf jokes and philosophy

Apparently it was the French writer and philosopher Voltaire who first introduced the word (though not the concept) humour to the French. In an 18th century letter he said: “Les Anglais ont un terme pour signifier cette plaisanterie, ce vrai comique, cette gaieté, cette unbanité, ces saillies qui échappent à un homme sans qu’il s’en doute; et ils rendent cette idée par le mot humeur, humour, qu’ils prononcent yumour, et ils croient qu’ils ont seuls cette humeur; que les autres nations n’ont point de terme pour exprimer ce caractère d’esprit. Cependant c’est un ancien mot de notre langue, employé en ce sense [depuis Corneille].” (The English have a word for these pleasantries, the comedic, this lightness, this urbaneness, these outbursts that surprise people; and they represent this idea with the word humour that they pronounce yumour, and they think they’re the only ones to possess, that other nations just can’t capture the unique quality of wit. And yet, we’ve had this term in our language as far back as Corneille.)

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Photo by Amir Ghoorchiani from Pexels  [CC0]
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About the Author: Tim Hildreth

Lise: Maybe not always. Paris has ways of making people forget. / Jerry: Paris? No, not this city. It's too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way. / An American in Paris


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