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A Game of French Wordplay: Les Bons Mots

by Meredith Mullins on November 20, 2017

A French bakery (boulangerie) with two women selling baguettes, illustrating baguettiquette, a form of French wordplay about the etiquette of eating baguettes. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Proper baguettiquette begins with the selection of the right baguette.
© Meredith Mullins

French Language Puns Offer Stories about the Culture

You can often step into French life through its language. Sometimes you can even invent new words to expand the boundaries of French language and culture. All it takes are some bilingual puns and a fun sense of French wordplay.

What word inventions come to your mind?

Observing Baguettiquette

What are the rules and traditions surrounding that oh-so-French symbol, the baguette?

Hardly a day goes by in France where a baguette doesn’t show its crusty face—tucked under someone’s arm in the street, paired with cheeses and a good bottle of wine at a riverside picnic, or at home eaten fresh from the oven of your local boulangerie.

Young woman carrying baguette on her shoulder, proper baguettetiquette, an invented word in French language as part of wordplay. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Just sling the baguette over your shoulder and keep walking.
© Meredith Mullins

More than one famous French street photographer captured a decisive baguette moment. They are a significant part of everyday life.

Here are some of the unwritten rules of baguettiquette:

  • You’re allowed (and encouraged) to spread butter and jam on your baguette at breakfast and dunk it in your coffee or tea.
  • When in France, you learn quickly to put your bread on the table beside your plate. In fact, if you put bread on your plate, you’re committing a serious dough pas.
  • You will be among the locals if you can’t resist biting off the end of the baguette as you carry it home, especially if it’s warm from the oven.
  • To that end (no pun intended), it is best to time your visit to the boulangerie to coincide with the morning or evening baking.
  • You can feel free to clean your plate with your bread to savor the last bits and drops of a delicious meal. This technique also expedites dishwashing.

Man eating end of a baguette in Paris, France, illustrating rules of baguettiquette, a word invented via wordplay with the French language. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Can anyone resist biting off the crunchy end of a baguette on the way home from the boulangerie?
© Meredith Mullins

Experiencing Déjà Rue

The magnetism and magic of Paris is to be able to walk down an endless number of streets, always discovering some treasure—whether it’s layers of history, local characters, or new cafés or tiny shops.

Woman in a Montmartre alleyway, illustrating wordplay in the French language (deja rue). (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

An interesting character at every turn when you’re flaneuring
© Meredith Mullins

From medieval alleyways to broad avenues, people have cultivated the art of flaneuring for many years—wandering without destination or purpose.

There are some streets where, even if you’ve never been before, something feels familiar. You’ve been there in another time, another life. You’ve been there in a Victor Hugo novel or a Baudelaire poem. You’ve been there in a symphony or in a saxophone solo under a streetlamp. That’s déjà rue.

You know you belong there.

Rue de Rivoli in Paris France, illustrating some wordplay (deja rue) in the French language. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The famous Rue de Rivoli, but seen in a different way—without traffic!
© Meredith Mullins

Finding Véliberation

The speedier version of flaneuring is velibing—flying freely through Paris on one of the bikes available from the city’s bike-sharing system.

It is indeed a liberating experience, especially when the traffic is minimal. (“When is that?” you might ask. Early Sunday mornings, or perhaps between 3 and 5 am . . . or in August when most of the locals are on vacation.)

Three velib riders in Paris France, illustrating the wordplay in the French language of veliberation. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

© Meredith Mullins

The Vélib system is now more than ten years old in Paris and is undergoing some important changes under Mayor Hidalgo, who wants Paris to be the most bike-friendly capital in the world.

The number of bikes and bike lanes is expected to double. Electric bikes will be added to the fleet. And signs will be added to the streets allowing cyclists to go through red lights and turn right on red.

A new system for parking the bikes will be installed to allow two bikes in one parking space. Arriving at your destination and not finding a parking space has been a recurring problem.

Despite challenges over the past 10 years (including a high rate of theft and destruction of the bikes), the system has been deemed a success. It is an environmentally-friendly way to move around the city, with the added bonus of that elusive feeling of véliberation.

Bakery (boulangerie) window in Paris France, illustrating the concept of eclairity, wordplay in the French language. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

So many choices. We must seek clarity.
© Meredith Mullins

Seeking Éclairity

Gazing in the window of a boulangerie or patisserie is a tough job, but someone has to do it. The array is artistic, colorful, mesmerizing, and tempting or taunting (depending on your health regime).

Some mornings are destined for croissants. Some evenings cry out for tartelettes. Often, there are a thousand small voices singing the song of the millefeuille.

But it is those days of éclairity, when the choice is clear. The éclair.

Éclairs are now omnipresent around the world, but they did, in fact, originate in France. They are believed to have been created by 19th century royalty chef Marie-Antonin Carême.

He liked to create structures, such as the Charlotte and the Napoleon. The éclair was a masterpiece of exterior and interior magic.

Chocolate and coffee eclairs in a bakery (boulangerie) window, illustrating wordplay in the French language. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Traditional éclairs in chocolate and coffee.
© Meredith Mullins

Éclair means “flash of lightening” in French. It is believed that the pastry was so named because the confectioner’s glaze glistened or perhaps because it was quickly gobbled up . . . by both royalty and common folk. Either way, it caused a stir in the world of French pastry.

Now, the flavors of chocolate, vanilla, and coffee are the foundation of tradition, but also the precursor for more creative approaches—for example, truffle, lemongrass, matcha tea, and pistachio.

Éclairity. Is it a flash of lightening or a way of life? Only you know the answer.

Offering a Sincere “Bone Appétit”

The French enjoy the pleasure of food and good company. Before you begin a meal, your host, friends, or waiter will most likely offer a “Bon appétit,” a sincere wish to enjoy the meal that will follow.

It literally means “have a good appetite,” but more likely than not, that’s a given when you sit down to a delicious French meal.

Dog with a bone, illustrating wordplay in the French language. (Image © Igor Terekhov/Hemera.)

Bone appétit!
© Igor Terekhov/Hemera

Bone appétit? Well, it speaks for itself. The French love their animals, especially their dogs. You’ll see dogs strutting by the Seine, eating in Michelin-starred restaurants, and wearing the best of canine haute couture. (See the Travel Tails story in OIC Moments.)

They deserve the best, so Bone appétit.

The “Oh, I See” Moments

We can learn a lot about French culture through a study of words, even when using our imagination to invent a new lexicon.

We can laugh at French language wordplay, and we can appreciate the simple pleasures of different cultures. Baguette etiquette. Flaneuring. Free-flying bike riding. Éclairs . . . and more.

We have this and much more to be thankful for, especially during this Thanksgiving week.

Bone appétit to our furry best friends, and Bon appétit to all the humans of the world celebrating Thanksgiving.

May you have a day filled with pleasures and treasures.

Thank you to The Local for the inspiration of baguettetiquette and to Boulangerie Martin on the Ile St Louis. For more information on éclairs, follow the trends with David Lebovitz. 

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


2 thoughts on “A Game of French Wordplay: Les Bons Mots

  1. Enjoyed your blog, as always. This seems like a good place to share the only bilingual pun I know: One man’s meat is another man’s poisson.

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