Our little village has no major grocery stores. It does have a medium sized and a slightly smaller one. The latter is a mini-version of a large chain. Checking out a few days ago, my attention was caught (as no doubt the company’s marketing people intended) by items near the cash register. Typically these are strategically placed for last-minute impulse buys. Indeed, there were cookies on sale. There were also, strange for an American, vanilla beans. Was it a post-holiday clearance? Maybe the locals, upon reaching the cash register, often think, “oh, oh I forgot this week’s quantity of vanilla beans.” Between the two foodstuffs, lying there matter-of-factly: a packet of condoms. Store brand condoms too. Sort of like Kroger or Safeway producing not only house brands of diswashing detergent, aluminum foil, and aspirin, but also their own line of male contraceptives. Customer: “Let’s see, I’ve got the wine, the chocolates…what’s missing, oh right, here it is at the checkout counter, a packet of rubbers.”
Their strategic presence is no accident. It’s actually part of a coordinated effort, supported by supermarkets, to make inexpensive condoms widely available. Maybe the French attitude toward this particular product explains why British slang dictionaries list “Frenchie” or “French letter" (now out of date) as synonyms. In my college dorm, a very long time ago, people used to praise one known as a “French Tickler,” though I, in my innocence, could never quite envision what it might actually actually look like.
The official French word can serve as a cautionary tale for those learning languages. As any student quickly learns, one must beware of “false friends,” cognates that mean very different things in the two languages. This becomes a special problem when the languages share common ancestry. English and French should not face this difficulty. The former was originally a Germanic language and the latter a Latin one (a “romance” language—one rooted in Imperial Rome).
History, however, intervened in the person of someone known in his youth as Guillaume le bâtard, Billy the bastard. Had his father, heading for a dalliance, been able to drop into our convenience store and pick up an inexpensive pack of prophylactics, Billy might have been spared his moniker. But, then, had Billy not seen the light of day, the world would have been quite different. For, in one of the great all time name changes, little Billy all grown up became, after 1066, Guillaume le Conquérant, William the Conqueror.
When he and his troops crossed the Channel, they naturally brought their language. English then benefited from a whole new source of vocabulary to complement its existing German-derived one. Jorge Borges once commented on the beauty of English for poets. Casting about for just the right word, they could draw on one with Germanic roots, say, “kingly,” or one with Latin roots, say “royal.” A meal in English can similarly be doubled. One can consume chicken (from German) or poultry (from Latin), lamb (German) or mutton (Latin), deer (German) or venison (Latin).
As a result, false friends become problematic for English speakers learning French. Demander, means “to ask,” not to make demands. Someone mentioning a caution is talking about a deposit. Perhaps the most famous is douche, which is how the French say “shower.” “Condom” might look like a French word, but it is not. Although the Quebecois have adopted the term and simply give it their own pronunciation, here in France the correct term can easily be a false friend. An ecologically sensitive type might, for instance, want to say something like: "I don’t want any food that has preservatives in it." Using the false friend préservatif would yield: “no food with condoms in it for me.”
Making such mistakes, though, is just part of the fun of learning another language. It is a kind of fun we would have missed out on were it not for the contraceptive-free affair that gave us William the Conqueror.