How to sound French: Winter 2015 edition

I’m always amazed by the American stereotype that France disdains American culture and the English language.  I recently read a web page on the subject of How you know you’re becoming French (sorry, I can’t find the link).  One of the clues was “you mix English in with your French.”  This is absolutely accurate.  We Americans avoid this if at all possible, and in French-speaking Canada it’s not looked upon well, but the French throw in English all the time–it’s considered cool, and makes you sound au courant.  I kept track of the English words that got thrown into conversation for a couple days.  Here’s what I came up with.

  • “Live:”  This came up while a friend made the point that modern classical music has to be listened to “live.”  I wasn’t expecting an English word, and asked: “live” as in en direct?  Yes, she said.
  • “Raw data:” This came up in a conversation about a kind of analysis that I was discussing with a research oncologist.  (France has one of the best health care systems in the world–totally comparable to America’s, except inexpensive.)  A minute later she used the French expression: données crudes.
  • “Outward-directed:” This came up in a discussion of the nature of happiness at a café philo.  The speaker immediately gave the French equivalent, dirigé à l’extérieur, so it’s clearly not the case that he didn’t know how to say it–it’s just cool to say it in English, right?
  • “Star:” This came up in a discussion of a job opening at a Parisian university: “they’re looking for a ‘star,'” said my interlocutor.  As I write this, there’s a conversation on the radio talking about what makes someone a star, versus a star de qualité, versus a navette (movie star), versus an étoile (star in the heavens)–do box office receipts equate to quality?
  • “Karma is a bitch:” This came up at the conclusion of a news story on the very hoity-toity radio program that I listen to in the morning.  It was at the conclusion of a story about well-known scumbag Martin Shkreli’s arrest.  I don’t know the French equivalent.
  • “The weather is pretty good:”  Same hoity-toity radio program.  (France culture matin–excellent program.  It’s like Morning Edition or All Things Considered in the US, multiplied by 10.)  No particular reason that I could tell of for throwing it in there–like I said, it’s just cool to mix English with your French here.

So, don’t sweat your vocabulary–speak French as much as you can, and if you have to mix in some English vocabulary, it’s not going to be the end of the world.



The smells of France: What’s missing

As an impoverished teenager, I lived near a bakery for a while.  It was torture–every morning, I could smell the fresh-baked bread as I went hollow-stomached off to school to get my free state-sponsored breakfast.  (Sticky buns–incredibly delicious, if not very nutritious.  I’ve never found their equal.)

A flûte.  Picture source: me.
A flûte. Picture source: me.
A bâtard "court" (short).  Coffee cup included to give an idea of the size.  Picture source: me.
A bâtard “court” (short). Coffee cup included to give an idea of the size. Picture source: me.

I haven’t been able to find an exact count of the number of bakeries in Paris, but the consensus seems to be that there are over a thousand.  So, here’s what I don’t understand: why doesn’t every square foot of the city smell like fresh-baked bread in the morning?  This is the mysteriously missing smell of Paris–I can’t recall ever smelling fresh-baked bread, despite the fact that there are multiple boulangeries in my neighborhood.

A stereotype that’s true: bread is really important here.  It’s free in the chow hall at work–you just pick what you want out of a big basket.  Little baguettes, or individual slices of some other kind of loaf.  (More on other kinds of loaves below.)  For well over 200 years–until August of this year–the government regulated when Parisian bakers could go on vacation, in order to ensure an uninterrupted bread supply in the city.

A stereotype that’s not true: not all French bread is amazing.  Some of it most definitely is.  Yesterday, the lady at the boulangerie at the bottom of the hill handed me a baguette and I could tell as soon as I put my hands on it that it was going to be incredible.  Indeed, it was–crunchy on the outside, firm and substantial–but soft–on the inside.  But, you can find meh stuff here, too.  Try different places until you find one that you like.  You might have trouble telling the good stuff from the bad stuff when you first get here, but your discriminatory abilities will improve with practice.

There are a number of different kinds of loaves, and I can’t claim any expertise with regard to them.  Here are some of the options in my boulangerie:

  • la baguette: this is the typical baguette.
  • la tradition: basically a traditional baguette–flour, water, salt, and nothing else.
  • le bâtard: larger around than a baguette.  Available in two sizes: long (long), and court (short).  I never thought that they looked particularly interesting, but must confess that when I bought the one pictured above, I immediately ate the entire thing for breakfast, despite the fact that I’ve been trying to cut down on my bread consumption due to my basic fatness.  Linguistic note: this is the only kind of bread that’s grammatically masculine.
  • la flûte: smaller around than a baguette.  Basically, within limits, the thinner the loaf, the higher the ratio of crust to inside.  These can have additional ingredients–added yeast, different grains, sesame seeds on the outside–stuff like that.
  • la ficelle: a much smaller loaf–roughly the diameter of a bread stick, but longer.
  • la boule: a round loaf.  (Note that if you make this masculine, it will mean something else different entirely–“ass” in France, “boob” in Quebec.  Go figure.)
  • champêtre: this is a weird one.  It’s not normally a noun, and I don’t know the gender.  In my favorite boulangerie, it’s used for a sort of peasant baguette–unevenly shaped, lumpy, delicious.  I haven’t seen this term used anywhere else, and it’s not always available at my boulangerie, either–the only place that I’ve ever been able to find them.
  • la fougasse: these look delicious, but actually aren’t.  They’re flat, have holes cut in them, and usually seem to be garnished with spices, some sort of dried stuff (maybe sun-dried tomatoes, maybe olives–that sort of thing).
  • la brioche: a sweet bread.

For more information, here’s a good article by David Lebovitz on the ins and outs of good (and bad) French bread.  He’s actually written many good articles on French bread–just search his site.



Things that we think are French, but aren’t

French kiss, French toast, French fries–what are they called in French?

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Picture source: screen shot from

The American emotional relationship with France is somewhat complicated, but on the whole, it’s enormously positive.  One linguistic reflection of this is the number of nice things in the world that we call “French” something or other.  I got curious about what those things are called in French.  My methodology for finding the answers: I looked them up on Wikipedia, then followed the link to the French-language page.  Here’s what I found.

French toast:  Everyone loves French toast.  In French, it’s pain perdu–“lost bread.”

French fries: Everyone loves French fries.  In French, they’re frites–“frieds.”  (“D” intended–it’s a past participle.)

French kiss: Who doesn’t remember their first French kiss with fondness?  In French, it’s a baiser amoureux (“romantic/amorous/loving kiss”), a baiser avec la langue (“kiss with the tongue”), or a baiser profond (“deep kiss”).  The French Wikipedia page says that in the 19th century, it was called a baiser florentin (“Florentine kiss”), presumably after the Italian city of Florence.  I hope that any French readers will be amused, and not shocked, to learn that in colloquial American English, to “french” someone means to give them a baiser profond.

French bread: Wikipedia redirects this one to baguette.

French cuff: there’s no separate Wikipedia page for this one, so I don’t know the French-language equivalent.

French window: these actually are quite French, and in French, they’re just called “windows.”

French door: no Wikipedia page for these, so I don’t know the French-language equivalent.

French twist: ditto.

French braid: France actually does take credit for this one–it’s la tresse française. 

French press: this is le piston.

Naturally, the next thing one wants to know is this: what things do French people call “American”?  Here are the things that I’ve been able to find:

le castor américain: North American beaver.

le poing américain: brass knuckles.

le football américain: Football.

le plan américain: a kind of camera angle.

la cuisine américaine: I see this in ads for apartments a lot–I think it means a non-detached kitchen.  I’d show you a picture of mine, but it’s totally draped with drying laundry at the moment.

le frigo américain: a stand-up fridge with two vertical doors.

la sauce américaine: I’ve seen this in the French-speaking part of Belgium, but not in France.  It looks like mayonnaise with ketchup in it–definitely not something that an American would put on French fries.





The smells of France: nice stuff, yucky stuff

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Street sign on campus.  “Guichet Station: variant (way to get there) by the Gutter path.”  Picture source: me.

Brigitte wrinkled her nose as we walked back to the office from the dining hall the other day.  “It smells like an égout around here.”  “This wants to say what, égout?,” I asked.  It turns out to be “sewer.”  This was just the beginning of the sudden appearance in my life of a number of words related to things that wastewater runs through, none of which I knew before.  Zipf’s Law meets the Poisson Distribution, I guess–that is to say, even rare events show up in clusters sometimes.

According to the Wikipedia page on the subject, the first Parisian sewers date back to 1370.  The current Parisian sewer system dates to about 1855, and was ordered by Napoleon III.  The sewers feature in novels occasionally; Wikipedia claims that the battle to clear the sewers of Paris of zombies is one of the most hard-fought battles in Max Brooks’s amazing World War Z (the movie is practically unrelated and not very good), but I believe it was actually the catacombs.  There’s actually a sewer museum in Paris, if you want to know more.

Definitions from

  • l’égout (m.): sewer, drain; (literary) cesspit.
  • la gouttière: gutter (for draining rainwater from a roof).
  • le caniveau: gutter (at the sides of a street). 

Why is the path in the street sign that is pictured above called le sentier de la Gouttière, the Gutter path?  I’m guessing that it’s because it’s basically a trough-shaped depression in the ground running down one side of the hill on which our campus is located.  Walking down it at this time of year, you smell wet leaves and wood smoke.  It’s a nice way to end my day.

The smells of France: scorched rubber

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A plaque on the wall of the metro station by my house explaining the phenomenon of the aerial stations in Paris. Picture source: me.

The metro station by my apartment smells like something scorched in the morning. I’ve never been able to imagine why–the entire thing is built of metal, glass, and concrete.

The station is on a line that’s unusual in that part of it is aérienne–above ground, and in fact elevated, like the Chicago L.  The idea behind building some of the lines like this is that one can avoid the expense of underground excavation by building over the routes of the old viaducts.

Both of the aerial lines–2 and 6–offer nice views of Paris at some point of their route.

That smell of scorched something?  It might be rubber–some Googling reveals the fact that my line has rolled on rubber wheels since 1974.

Here are some words that Zipf’s Law brings us by way of the plaque mounted on the wall of the station, pictured above. Definitions from

  • aérien(ne): air, aerial; (of cables or machinery) overhead; (of a track) elevated; ethereal.
  • notamment: especially, particularly, in particular; including, such as, for example, for instance
  • circulaire: circular; (of a ticket) round-trip.
  • le tracé: outline, drawing; route.
  • économiser: to save, economize.
  • le percement: opening.
  • le tunnel: tunnel; also, a difficult period; also, an advertising break.
  • édifier: to build, to construct.
  • le viaduc: viaduct.

There are lots more Zipf’s Law-type words on the sign, but this is a lot for one day, so let’s leave it at that. See the Wikipedia articles on lines 2 and 6 for specifics of where to get nice views of Paris on these lines.

I’ve found the Paris of my dreams

The Cafe des Phares on Place de la Bastille, the home of the first Café philo. Picture attribution: “Café des Phares, Place de la Bastille, Paris” by Booklover206 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons (link at bottom of page)

I’ve finally found the Paris of my dreams!  When Americans come to Paris, we dream of going to parties with people who have strong opinions about Sartre versus Bernard-Henri Lévy and are very familiar with the history of the cinema.  We also dream of sitting around cafes discussing weighty stuff with people.  I haven’t figured out how to get invited to any of those parties, but I found out how to do the cafe thing.

There’s this thing called a “café philo,” or Philosophical Cafe.  These are public meetings to talk about philosophical matters, typically (as you might guess, although not always) in a cafe.  The format can vary–sometimes there’s a pre-selected topic, and sometimes people suggest and vote on topics at the beginning of the meeting.  The Cafés philo are actually a movement that started in Paris in the 1990s at the inspiration of the philosopher Marc Sautet.  (The English Wikipedia page on Sautet relates that he briefly offered consulting services on philosophy to businessmen, at rates about equal to those of a psychoanalyst–the most French business idea that I’ve ever heard of.)  The Cafés philo aim at a democratization of the practice of philosophy, and have spread all over France and elsewhere, notably South America.

Anyone can, and does, come to these things.  Attendance at one that I went to this weekend included:

  • An old guy in a tweed jacket and severe glasses
  • A pale-faced, blonde Polish cardiologist (charming accent) wearing a stunning knee-length caracol winter coat
  • A pompous guy in a black turtleneck
  • A smoking-hot college student
  • A young African guy
  • A clearly crazy guy with a long gray beard wearing a peacoat like a cape, pants rolled up to his knees, and white knee-length stockings (he talked to himself through the whole thing)

Topics are wide-ranging.  Here are some of the topics that were voted on at the beginning of one that I went to this weekend:

  • Are existing and living the same thing?
  • Why are you afraid to die?
  • The end of carefreeness?
  • Language is the house of my master (might have been language and the house of my master–no matter which it was, I couldn’t make any sense out of it)

We finally ended up with “is a life lived only for oneself worth living?”  Opinions varied; the only thing I can recall hearing broad agreement about at one of these things is that utilitarianism is sucky–and “Anglo-Saxon.”

How I discovered the Cafés philo, and how you can find them for yourself:  This turns out to be a great way to deal with the isolation of being a foreigner in France, as you can connect with groups of people doing all sorts of things.  Scroll through the list of things happening in Paris and you’re likely to find something of interest.  Language-sharing groups abound, as do things for expats.  I found a number of computer-science-related things, and…the Cafés philo, of which there are several in Paris, meeting at different times and places.

The most surprising thing to me has been how fun these things are.  My previous exposure to philosophy has mostly been pretty dry and pedantic–fussy, even.  In contrast, the Cafés philo are animated affairs, with perhaps a young college student in the back waving his arms to be called on to share his thoughts on why obstacles are necessary to happiness, or a really pithy insight being followed by applause.  I had a great time!  As one of the speakers pointed out, the point is to live life–philosophy is just a way of learning how to do that.  A variety of beverages were consumed, people laughed (at one point I think I heard the joke about the Jew stranded alone on a desert island with two synagogues, one of which he goes to on the Sabbath, and the other which he wouldn’t set foot in–many of the Jews I know love telling this joke–although I have trouble understanding the guy who was telling it because he’s missing some teeth, and I assume it was the joke mostly on the basis of keywords), and afterwards those who feel like it go out for lunch or dinner together.

People at these things tend to be thrilled to show off their English when they find out that you’re American, but these things basically take place entirely in French, unless you go to one that is specifically advertised as being in English (there’s at least one in Paris, but they’re in the minority, and I’ve never been to one, so I can’t tell you what the attendance is like).  So, this experience is going to be most enjoyable for someone with a pretty good command of the language.  (I understand maybe 80% of what’s going on, and unfortunately, the 20% that I miss always seems to be the most important part.)  As you can imagine, Zipf’s Law strikes constantly in one of these things–I would have had trouble following a technical philosophy discussion even in my native language, and it’s far worse in a second language.  Here are some words that I had to look up (translations from the Collins French-English dictionary, Kindle edition):

  • le bonheur: happiness.  “Happiness” was the main topic of conversation at the café philo that I went to Saturday night, with definitions ranging from the metaphorical to the purely ontological.
  • la morosité: (sadness) morosity, gloominess; (of a person) sullenness; (of an economy or market) sluggishness.  The person running one of the cafés philo that I went to this weekend commented on how odd it felt to be talking about happiness in the light of the morosité of recent weeks, since the attacks of 13/11.  (First definition from
  • l’insouciance (f.): (absence de soucis) carefreeness, carefree attitude; (irresponsabilité) carelessness.
  • l’excitation (f.): excitement.
  • l’enthousiasme (m.): enthusiasm.
  • la méfiance: distrust.
  • la désespoir: despair; hopelessness.
  • demander la parole: to ask to speak (
  • prendre la parole: to take the floor, to speak (

Picture source:,_Place_de_la_Bastille,_Paris.JPG#/media/File:Caf%C3%A9_des_Phares,_Place_de_la_Bastille,_Paris.JPG

What are you talking about??

How a computer knows what you’re asking about when you ask it a question.

A “word cloud” showing named entities. Picture source:

Recently we’ve been talking about questions—in particular, some of their weird social dynamics (see this, too) and how you can get computers to answer them. In one post, we talked about the fact that you can get computers to answer factoid questions, but the computer has to be able to figure out what you’re asking about. In that post, we talked about how the computer can help itself to do this by figuring le focus and le thème of the question—for example, that When was Mozart born? is looking for some expression of time.

Another thing that computers can do is to recognize what we call named entities in the question. A named entity is a mention of some specific semantic class of things. For example, Mozart is a named entity, specifically a person; National Institutes of Health is a named entity, specifically an organization; Paris is a named entity, specifically a place. If a computer knows that something in a question is a named entity, then it knows that it is likely to find the answer to a question in a sentence that contains that named entity. Here’s the intuition behind the approach: given a question like When was Mozart born?, we don’t care that much about sentences that contain the words when or was, but sentences that contain Mozart might be useful to us. The way that the computer can tell that it should care about Mozart more than it cares about when or was is by recognizing that Mozart is a named entity.

In a previous post, we ran across the term repérage d’entités nommées, meaning “named entity recognition” (more literally, spotting or finding). Here’s another way of saying the same thing, from the French Wikipeda page on named entity recognition:

La reconnaissance d’entités nommées: named entity recognition.

La reconnaissance d’entités nommées est une sous-tâche de l’activité d’extraction d’information dans des corpus documentaires. Elle consiste à rechercher des objets textuels (c’est-à-dire un mot, ou un groupe de mots) catégorisables dans des classes telles que noms de personnes, noms d’organisations ou d’entreprises, noms de lieux, quantités, distances, valeurs, dates, etc.

“Named entity recognition is a sub-task of the extraction of information in document corpora. It consists of searching for textual obects (that is to say, a word, or a group of words) categorizable into classes such as names of persons, names of organizations or enterprises, names of places, quantities, distances, values, dates, etc.”

He’s an adult

In the birthplace of Existentialism, you really are responsible for yourself.

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“Road closed except for residents.”  This was the sign at the construction site (read the post).  Picture source: me.

One of the things that I appreciate about France is that the French treat their citizens as if they have common sense and can think for themselves.  Some examples:

  • Recently, the news in the US was full of the fact that so many “love locks” had been attached to the Pont des arts bridge in Paris that the railing along the side had fallen down.  While waiting for it to be repaired, the French authorities put a rope in front of the fallen section of railing.  I’m pretty sure that in America, the entire bridge would have been closed down.  From a French perspective: what kind of idiot would walk off the side of a bridge?  You’re not stupid enough to do that, and even if you are, should I block off the entire bridge for everyone?
  • I was recently sitting up late at night (well, late for me, which means it was probably about 9 PM) with a bunch of people in Japan, having a drink.  There was an Italian, an Norwegian, a Korean, a Japanese guy, and a French woman–of course, we were speaking English, that being the only language that everyone had in common.  One of the guys got up to go take a soak in the onsen, one of the famous Japanese baths.  One of the other guys said, “oh, no–you shouldn’t do that when you’ve been drinking!”  The French woman’s response was very characteristic: “he’s an adult.”  That, my friend, is the essence of France.
  • The one road that leads from the train station to my campus is torn up right now due to a construction project.  I walked up to the foreman the other day and asked if I could pass through the road.  Sure–no  problem.  In America, the entire road would have been blocked off–here, the foreman just assumed that I would have the sense to walk around the power shovel, rather than under it.

Nothing in life happens without Zipf’s Law coming into play.  Here’s the word that I learnt that morning.  Definitions from

  • le riverain: inhabitant, local.
  • riverain (adj.): bordering, stretching along; riverside, waterside; riparian.

Political maneuvering to keep the extreme right out of power in the French regionals

The far right did well in the first round of regional elections, but the rest of France hasn’t given up the fight.

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“If the left and the right don’t manage to get along in order to obstruct the extreme right, there will be reason to lose hope in our politicians.” Picture source: Twitter screenshot.

The Word Of The Day in France is faire barrage. translates it as “to stand in the way, to obstruct.”  Sunday was the first tour–the first round of votes–in the 2015 regional elections.  The second tour will be this weekend.  In the first tour, there were an enormous number of parties participating.  In the second tour, only the three highest-scoring parties in any région can participate.  The far-right National Front party had a huge showing in the first tour.  The left and the center right share a concern with stopping it in the second tour, and there are many strategies to faire barrage à the National Front–to block it (from taking power).  For example, in a number of areas of France, the Socialist party is urging its members to vote for the center-right Les Républicains–normally their sworn enemies, but if it will keep the far right out of office, the Socialist prime minister will support it. Consequently, the expression faire barrage is all over the news this week.  The center right is saying that it won’t join with the left, but it’s the one that’s benefitting, so presumably this is going to happen.  I hope…

  • le barrage: dam, floodwall; barrier, roadblock.  (There’s also a sports-related meaning that I don’t even understand in English.)
  • faire barrage (à): to stand in the way (of), to obstruct.

America doesn’t suck, but Donald Trump does

Discriminating against people because of their religion is evil. Donald Trump discriminates against Moslems. Donald Trump is evil.

Donald Trump is an American real estate developer, a very rich man, a reality TV star, and a candidate for the Republican Party nomination for the 2016 presidential election.  In fact, for some months, he has been the frontrunner for the Republican Party nomination.  He is a horrible person.

The specific evidence that Trump is a horrible person: he is currently using the stump to shop the idea that Muslims should be banned from entering the country.  Here’s one of the things that make America great: it’s illegal to discriminate against people because of their religion.  (For example, here’s a lengthy description of the prohibition against discrimination in hiring because of religion.)  Why is it illegal?  Because discriminating against people because of their religion is bad.  It is evil. 

Trump’s statement has triggered outrage in the United States.  You’ll hear people point out that it’s stupid because we have Muslims fighting and dying for America in the US military (15,000 currently serving, according to Wikipedia).  You’ll hear people point out that it’s stupid because only the tiniest, tiniest minority of Muslims support terrorism.  All of these people are right–but, they’re missing the point.  The point is that discriminating against people because of their religion is bad.  It is evil.  Yes, I’m repeating myself–this bears repeating.  I generally keep my politics out of this blog, but I can’t imagine keeping silent about this.  It’s wrong to discriminate against Catholics because of their religion.  It’s wrong to discriminate against Jews because of their religion.  It’s wrong to discriminate against Muslims because of their religion.  It’s wrong to discriminate against Mormons because of their religion.  It’s wrong, and it’s not American.  It never has been, and I hope that it never is.

Zipf’s Law comes up in a discussion of Donald Trump like it does anywhere else.  Here are some words from the French Wikipedia article on fascism:

Le fascisme est un système politique autoritaire qui associe populisme, nationalisme7 et totalitarisme8 au nom d’un idéal collectif suprême. À la fois révolutionnaire et conservateur, il s’oppose frontalement à la démocratie parlementaire et à l’État libéral garant des droits individuels9,10.

“Fascism is an authoritarian political system that brings together populism, nationalism, and totalitarianism in the name of an ideal supreme group.  Revolutionary and conservative at the same time, it is head-on opposed to parliamentary democracy and to the liberal State that guarantees individual rights.”

  • associer: to associate, to combine.
  • s’opposer à: to be opposed to, to be against; to oppose, to confront; to be contradictory with each other.