French Language Blog

Mea culpa Posted by on Oct 25, 2016 in Culture, Grammar, Music, Vocabulary

Did you catch it? My mistake last week? Non? Well, I’m glad! But I’m also sorry if I misled anyone. Halloween of course is le 31 octobre (October 31) which is still a week away! I was either so excited for les déguisements et les bonbons (costumes and candy) or I was simply not paying attention to the calendar! I’ll let you decide.

Gisant de Jean sans Peur By Claus de Werve, Jean de la Huerta (1443-1455) et Antoine Le Moiturier (1466-1470) (Yelkrokoyade) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Gisant de Jean sans Peur (funeral sculpture of John the Fearless) ^

In any case, this extra week until Halloween gives me a perfect opportunity to continue the frightful fun.

First, how did you do with the song last week? Were you able to make out the characters attending the bal masqué (the costume party) ? The first two should be easy even with the French pronunciation: Superman and Spiderman. From there it gets a little trickier; let’s break it down:

Columbine et Arlequin By Malene Thyssen (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Colombine et Arlequin^^

Joséphine (la femme de Napoleon / the wife of Napoleon)
Colombine (Colombine and Arlequin (Harlequin), are characters from an early form of Italian theater where masked actors played roles representative of common stock characters of the day like the noble, the peasant, the maid, and the clown )
Dracula (le vampire / vampire)
D’Artagnan (he of three Musketeers fame)
Cendrillon (is the French name for Cinderlla)
Jules César (eternal frenemy* of our friends Asterix and Obelix)
Arlequin (Harlequin)
Napoléon (Napoleon)
Bécassine (Bécassine est une personnage de BD célèbre / a famous comic book character from the Bretagne / Brittany region, first appearing in the early 1900s and still popping up from time to time today. The French singer Chantal Goya had a hit in the early 1980s that you can view here to see Bécassine in action.)
Casanova (the famous seducer of woman)
Marylin (one assumes Monroe, but this one is not obvious from the lyrics)

All the talk of fear got me wondering about the difference between the French words: la peur, l’angoisse, et la frayeur**. Like their English counterparts – fear, anxiety/dread, and fright – the differences between these words can be subtle. This great quote from Freud in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) sums it up nicely I think:

On considère généralement les mots frayeur, peur, angoisse comme des synonymes.
One generally considers the words fright, fear, and anxiety as synonyms.
En quoi on a tort***, car rien n’est plus facile que de les diffé­rencier, lorsqu’on les considère dans leurs rapports avec un danger.
That is a mistake, for nothing is easier than to tell them apart when you consider them in relation to a danger.
L’angoisse est un état**** qu’on peut caractériser comme un état d’at­tente de danger, de préparation au danger, connu ou inconnu ;
Anxiety is a state (of being) that can be characterized as a state of awaiting danger, of preparation for danger, known or unknown;
la peur sup­pose un objet déterminé en présence duquel on éprouve ce sentiment;
fear presupposes a specific object in the presence of which one experiences the feeling;
quant à la frayeur, elle repré­sente un état que provoque un danger actuel, auquel on n’était pas préparé : ce qui la caractérise principalement, c’est la surprise.
as for fright, it represents a state brought on by a real and present danger, for which one was not prepared: the principal characteristic of a fright is the surprise.


* French doesn’t have a word for ‘frenemy’. The nearest equivalents I can find are “meilleur ennemi” and “faux ami” which seem to sit – meaning “best enemy” and “false friend” respectively – on either side of the more convivial “frenemy” which means more of “someone you love to hate” or “that you despise but with grudging respect”.

** You can add ‘la frousse’ to the list too, if you like. ‘avoir la frousse’ is a common familiar expression that means essentially the same as ‘avoir peur’.

*** The exprssion ‘avoir tort’ means ‘to be wrong’ as in ‘Pierre a tort. Paris n’est pas plus grande que New York.‘ (Peter is wrong. Paris is not bigger than New York.)

**** Like in English, ‘état’ (state) can refer to an actual state (like New Hampshire or California), to an emotional state (like fear), and to the condition of a thing (‘l’état de la voiture’ / ‘the condition of the car’ . . . Est-elle neuve? Vieille? Propre? Sale? / Is it new? Old? Clean? Dirty?)

Photo credits

^By Claus de Werve, Jean de la Huerta (1443-1455) et Antoine Le Moiturier (1466-1470) (Yelkrokoyade) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

^^By Malene Thyssen (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author: Tim Hildreth

Since my first trip to France at 16, I have been a passionate francophile. I love the language, food, music, art, people, and more that make France and la Francophonie in general such an amazing part of our global community. Having lived in France and studied the language and culture for over 35 years, it is my great pleasure to be able to share a little bit of my deep love with you through this blog.