Some days the bear will eat you,
Some days you eat the bear.
–Joan Armatrading, Eating the Bear
There’s a store in my little neighborhood whose sign has always puzzled me somewhat. In order to understand it, I needed to learn bear-related vocabulary in French:
- l’ours (nom masculin): male bear; boor, curmudgeon.
- l’ourse (nom fémenin): female bear. Pronounced [urs], not [urz].
- l’ourson (nom masculin): bear cub; teddy bear.
- le nounours: teddy bear. Pronounced [nunurs]–the s is not silent, as you would expect it to be.
L’ourson (teddy bear) is not to be confused with:
- l’oursin (nom masculin): sea urchin. Yes, they are eaten in France, not just in Japan.
Some of the words meaning “bear” are used in idiomatic expressions:
- un vrai nounours: “a real teddy bear.” The French Etc. web site explains the expression like this: “un vrai nounours means ‘a real gem’…un vrai nounours is used to describe a person who is really sweet, going along with everything easily.”
- un vrai ours: “a real bear.” French Etc. explains it like this: “‘a real boor’, a person who isn’t sociable.”
“Bear” has some interesting slang meanings in English. Here are a couple:
- A difficult situation or thing. “I have to finish a project proposal by New Year’s Eve–it’s a bear, because I have to find a way to smoothly integrate high-throughput assay analysis and theoretical linguistics.”
- A gay man who is big, bearded, and hairy.