Franglais – le français étranglé or French for the unwary

Driving into  a village one day we saw a road sign depicting a cartoon-style, slightly crazy looking, shock headed young man with the words: vazy molo.  This got us thinking about the language pitfalls and totally incomprehensible references which await the English speaking visitor.

Who is this character Vazy Molo?  Is he perhaps related to Bison Futé?  And what is he trying to tell us?

Similarly, on the recycling bins to be found in rural areas, we once came across the usual papier/carton/plastiques/verre – so far so good – and then bricks.  Bricks??  We wondered whether recently arrived anglophones, engaged in renovating their French ruin, might be inspired to post unwanted bricks, one by one, into the container which is in fact designated for juice and milk cartons!


Before we decipher the identity of Vazy Molo, just a word about one of France’s best loved characters, Bison Futé or Clever Bison.

On 2nd August 1975 traffic came to a standstill on a total of 600km of the French road network and the N10 linking Paris and the Spanish border was gridlocked for a quarter of its total length.  Something had to be done and before the next August exodus the Ministry of Transport had put together a plan.  Maps were produced showing alternative routes (les itinéraires bis) and diversions round major towns, but how to persuade motorists to use them?

The legendary advertising writer Daniel Robert came up with the notion of Clever Bison, perhaps playing on the words Bis and Bison, who would give you the inside knowledge.  The challenge was to persuade the French, who love to be futé, that this was a clever alternative, whilst relying on the fact that there would be a sufficient proportion who would be encore plus futés and stay on the traditional routes!  It worked spectacularly, reducing congestion by 30% in the first year, and now Bison Futé is a trusted advisor who regularly tells us what to expect on the roads and what to do about it.

Now to bricks and so on.  The French, although famous for their apparent resentment of the inumerable English words which pollute their language,  actually appropriate foreign words and phrases enthusiastically and with appalling insouciance as regards their original meaning.  So they say un box  to indicate a private underground parking space, un slip for underpants, le badge for an electronic key fob, or le dressing to mean a walk-in wardrobe.  They are adamant that le cake only refers to the shape of the beast, it may contain dried fruit or ham and olives, but it must be in a loaf shape.  (That said, the English use of the expression en-suite is similarly incomprehensible to a French person).

Academie Française

Perhaps it is something to do with the Académie Française, which debates so ponderously and for so long in order to create acceptable new words to keep up with swiftly evolving global communication.  By the time they decided on mél for email, it was obvious that they were simply shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse, since the country at large was using the word mail (though not, of course email – we shall come to this shortly) and the Académie’s feeble suggestion of courriel simply never cut the mustard.

French people are impatient with words and phrases which they consider cumbersome, and will reduce them to more manageable proportions in defiance of all logic.  For example le or la british (note the small b), can equally well mean British Airways, the British Council or the British Embassy.  If you are invited for l’ apéro you know that this is a shortened form of apéritif, but this passion for shortening words and phrases can be applied to almost anything, such as écolo for ecological, macdo for Mc Donalds, la rando (randonnée meaning a hike).  So to return to our imponderable young motorist and what he means, molo probably comes from mollement, gently or cautiously and Vazy is simply a jazzy way of writing vas-y – so “go carefully!”

In fact the French love “jazzy ways” of writing words or snappy-sounding foreign expressions, sometimes used to alarming effect.  For instance the local mobile disco when we first arrived here rejoiced in the name of “Pinky Night”, and its current replacement is called “Slimer” . A short hike around Arlebosc, designed for families, with quizzes and information on panels contained in plastic tubes is called the Rando Tub’.  The apostrophe means nothing to the French so they scatter them about at random in an effort to look up to the minute, as in 1980’s craze for collecting lapel badges which were known, in the singular, as le pin’s.

There has always been a national obsession with English present participles used as nouns as in le dancing, le camping, le shampooing (pronounced “shompwang”) rather than dance hall, campsite, and shampoo,  or they invent fanciful notions such as le brushing, to mean a blow dry.  In fact, in a combination of linguistic cannibalism, you may well see a hairdresser advertising an all-in price for a coup’, shamp, brush!

Beef Wellington, Photo credit 2 en cuisine

When I first lived in Paris I had a game with myself to see whether I could find a butcher who could spell roast beef correctly.  I encountered roost beef, rost bif, roast beaf and everything in between but most usually rosbif, so I eventually decided that this was the correct French word.  In fact the French most usually refer to the English as les rosbifs so perhaps they are entitled to their eccentric spelling in this case.  A favourite cartoon, which I can no longer find, depicts a puzzled French diner studying his plate and saying to the hovering waiter: Je vois le boeuf, mais où sont les Wellingtons?”  (I see the beef but where are the wellingtons?)

Of course menu translations can be an endless source of both amusement and puzzlement.  We recently saw jambon cru repeatedly rendered throughout a menu as crude jam, which offers no help to the uninitiated!  But how would you cope if you needed to select a drink from the following on offer: un pérroquet, un monaco, un panach’, un galopin, un caoua, which are respectively a parrot (pastis with mint syrup and water), beer with grenadine (pomegranate) syrup and lemonade, a shandy (written in full as un panaché), a very small wine glass of beer (also contracted to un galop or un galop panach’) and a café (caoua is pronounced “cahwah” and is associated with French North Africa –  but that is quite another story!!)

By the way they do not limit their creativity solely to English.  Le bistro apparently derives from the habit of Russian soldiers, who were occupying Paris in 1814 and forbidden to drink on duty, of entering a café calling out быстро” (quickly), which sounds a bit like bistro, so the word came to mean an establishement where you would be served snappily. Under German occupation, troops searching a property might point to a roof opening and ask “Was ist das?” presumably to determine whether anyone could have escaped through it.  The phrase was subsequently adopted as a single word: le vasistas, to mean a skylight.

More recently, with the arrival of Italian specialities in snack shops and delicatessens, we have been treated to un paninis (from the Italian singular panino, in the plural panini but with an s stuck on for good measure) and mozzarella di buffala rendered as mozz de buff.

So, pace the Académie, and in spite of my frequent roars of frustration, one should probably not take all this massacring of language too seriously.  It does indicate that French is a much more lively language than is often supposed and that there is a lot of fun and playfulness involved in daily speech.  See what you make of this!


Courtesy of

photo credits:

publication des administrations publiques françaises



5 thoughts on “Franglais – le français étranglé or French for the unwary

  1. Hi Maeggi and Kate, yes, that strangled French is pretty confusing and can be pretty funny! I love “Guy vomit sous mon nez”! It really cracked me up! At the Grand Canyon recycle bins they made an effort to translate “Recycle only” into different languages. In German they came up with “Nur aufbereiten”! I am still scratching my head trying to figure out how they got to that! It really makes knowing several languages a lot of fun – Americans don’t know what they are missing out on!   You might have heard of the disasters in Colorado and New Mexico. Yes, we did get a lot of rain too, but not like them and we escaped any flooding this time. Just canned some applesauce and peaches. It has been an incredible year for fruit and vegetables. In a week I’ll be going up to Utah for a 4-wheel trip with friends like last year. Hope the roads are not washed out! Love, sorella Blitz


  2. Hello, bonjour, hallo miteinand,

    is there more about these linguistic traps on your blog ? You should create a new category for these interesting language questions, surprises, inventions…
    I really liked this post.

    How do you manage to do all this ? I mean blogging AND harvesting AND walking AND keeping your house up AND giving concerts AND and and…. Aix cetera ???

    Thanks for sharing all this.
    Bis bald ? Liebe Grüße,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.