Just about every French expat blog has a list of French gaffes they’ve made. They often include things like mixing up the words for preservatives and condoms (préservatifs) or beets and a vulgar way to say “penis” (bite). I recently heard a great story about an American missionary who mixed up the words for medicine and doctor (a doctor is a médecin in French) and he told an old lady at church that she should, “Take the doctor and go to bed!” to fix her cold. I have had my fair share of embarrassing slip ups, which make things interesting (and sometimes horribly embarrassing). Here’s an assortment of moments I wish I could’ve taken back.
I frantically told my landlord the lightning in my room was broken. It didn’t take her long to figure out that I meant lightbulb (not even similar words in French… I just totally mixed them up) and then she started saying words in French like “shorted” and “fuse box” and I was so lost. I nodded along and memorized each word she said before returning upstairs to look them up on my phone. I was in the dark (literally and figuratively) for quite a while because of that.
Recently, I referred to the female kitten at my house (Lexi) by the female version of “cat” and accidentally made a bizarre vulgar comment about women’s genitalia. While talking to my landlord’s son one morning, I mentioned that Lex had been stealing tissues from my trash. Without thinking, I said, “Elle est maline, c’est chatte !” (She’s a sneaky cat!) He smirked and as soon as I heard myself say it, I thought, dang it. I said, “crap, not what I meant!” and then he burst out laughing.
In order to explain various American habits to my sixièmes (12 year olds), I brought greeting cards from various holidays to show that Americans love to send cards. One student held a St. Patrick’s card up and said, “Madame, c’était qui Patrick ?” (Who was Patrick?) I replied quickly in French, “He was a saint!” Somehow, my pronunciation was slightly off and I pronounced saint like sein, so my sentence boldly proclaimed, “He was a boob!” I knew immediately from a few faces what I had done, but I tried as quickly as possible to move on to avoid the rest of them figuring it out and losing it.
During a lesson about clothing, we were listing popular brands for an activity. When they missed Nike, I said, “You guys don’t wear Nike?” I knew they pronounced it differently in France so when they didn’t understand my pronunciation, I tried to remember how they pronounce it. I said, “you know… nike (pronounced like “geek”)!” They all lost it. In that moment, I remembered they pronounce it like bike, not like geek… and I had just said the f-word. I couldn’t recover from that one, so I cracked up with them.
On a separate note, I learned another addition to the world of racist names for kids games yesterday. Two girls were thumb wrestling at the end of class and I asked what they call the game in French. They said, “Chinese arm wrestling!” I thought I had misheard her (she said “bras de fer chinois”) and then I thought to myself, of course they would call it that. I’m scared to learn what tic-tac-toe and hopscotch are called.