"Bien je jamais"?

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Boris Johnson started a recent interview segment this way:

Interviewer: Did you really call the French turds?
Boris Johnson:   Well I doubt-
I have no- I have no recollection of this- uh
of- of- of this- uh of this-
this comment
but you know I- I notice- I notice that
it is- you know
it is- it's not very well sourced this story but anyway
Interviewer: well it seems to have come from the foreign office
what do you read into that?
Boris Johnson: bien je jamais
as we say um
uh in french
I think-
I think-
look the- the serious question
uh that perhaps under- underlying all this
uh and- and perhaps what- what
everyone wanted to know
uh can I
get a fantastic deal from our country from our french
friends can we go forwards
in a collegiate
uh friendly way and yes of course
we can

Listening to this, I was puzzled by Mr. Johnson's French expression, which I heard as "Bien jeu jamais", though with an unexpectedly [u]-like vowel in "jeu". I thought maybe it was an unfamiliar (to me) variant of  the familiar expression "bien joué". This didn't make any sense to  me, but then idioms often don't.

The first youtube comment supported my lack of comprehension: "I did not understand what he said in french, and I am french…"

But then, a couple of comments later, someone identifying himself as "Nathaniel Joyce" offered a plausible solution:

He was trying to say bien je jamais, his creative way of saying well I never, but he got it so wrong.

I'm familiar with the expression "well I never", though I don't think I've ever heard it used except as a way of iitating the hypothetical shocked reaction of a stereotypical elderly British woman. Wiktionary identifies it as an (idiomatic, dated) "expression of great surprise", which accords with my intuitions.

Is "bien je jamais" a standard British schoolboy calque for this expression? Or was Mr. Johnson really being creative?



  1. Ken said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 9:01 pm

    It would depend if "creative" includes "generating gibberish".

  2. AntC said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 9:16 pm

    Speaking as a one-time British schoolboy, of slightly older vintage than Johnson, but without the benefit of a soi-disant 'Public' School education, I've never heard the phrase.

    I think it comes straight from the Miles Kington (who did go to a minor 'Public' school) argot of 'Franglais', as 'well I never' calqued into French.

  3. Martha said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 11:50 pm

    I'm neither British nor a boy, but it sounds exactly like something we would have done in my French class to be funny.

  4. David said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 12:11 am

    AntC est tache-sur, je crois: c'est l'enfant-amour du franglais de Miles Kington's Franglais et Major Thompson de Pierre Daninos, avec un ordre côte d'Asterix chez les Bretons. Quoi? Plutôt!

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 12:31 am

    With the French version I have no familiarity whatsoever; but "well I never" is a well-attested phrase in Southern British English and used (in my experience) by those of my parent's generation and before.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 1:20 am

    P.S. "shocked" ? No. Merely surprised. It is (of course) short for "well I never did". The Google "n-grams" viewer suggests that the phrase entered our vocabulary shortly before 1830 and is still in use today. Its use peaked in the 1930s.

  7. Outeast said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 1:21 am

    "As we say in French" is an odd phrasing here. Usually "as we say" is an in-group marker, so in this context you'd expect him to be claiming to be a French speaker using a French idiom. Makes me think that he is trying to demonstrate he speaks French and is using something he believes to be a real French expression.

    I also like the creative interpretation that "did you call the French turds?" is really asking, "can you negotiate a great deal for us with the EU?" – a nice knock-down argument if I've ever heard one.

  8. Outeast said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 1:28 am

    @philip taylor

    The ngram results are quite likely to be skewed by the use in fiction set in the past (ie if "modern uses" are anachronistic). Though I have a feeling I might use it very occasionally myself.

  9. Tom Dawkes said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 2:21 am

    This reminds me of the time at school when our french teacher, trying to emphasise that you CAN'T translate word for word, recounted the story of the English policeman patrolling the crowds at a football match between France and England: the spectators were getting rather excited and he kept walking up and down the line, saying in turn "Now then" and "Maintenant puis". "Now then" is a rather dated phrase — I was in school in the 50s — calling people to behave.

  10. Tom Dawkes said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 2:33 am

    And, of course, this extract demonstrates how wonderfully fluent in English AND French our putative Prime Minister is, with a ready phrase to smooth negotiations with the European Union. His time as a journalist in Brussels was clearly well spent…

  11. philip said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 2:40 am

    Was he maybe trying to start off a French phrase, 'Bien, j'ai jamais [dit ca]…' but then, as he does with most of his phrases, gave up on it before ot was really started?

  12. Picky said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 3:35 am

    Martha and AntC are right, I’m sure. This is schoolboy Franglais, a deliberately incorrect word-for-word translation of an English idiomatic expression. It is a knowing joke, intended to show that Johnson knows very well that it is not correct French, because of his high intelligence and super duper education.

    I’m afraid it’s the sort of jokey thing I’m guilty of myself, and I’m by no means as unpleasant as Mr Johnson,

  13. Stephen Coombs said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 3:58 am

    I remember "bene ego nunquam" being facetiously current among Latin novices in my provincial grammar school back in the fifties.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 4:07 am

    Arrggghhhh. "Those of my parents' generation". Slaps own face very hard.

  15. RP said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 4:29 am

    When I read the transcript I thought the same as "philip", that maybe he had started to try to say "well, I never would have said that". But listening to the intonation, I agree it was a mistranslation of "well, I never!".

    It is important to note that Johnson sees himself as a wit. The phrase "as we say in French" is just part of the joke and doesn't mean that he thinks French people really say that.

    I think the phrase "well I never!" is still in use (I can easily imagine either of my parents saying it – they are in their 60s). He may not have intended it as an expression of surprise here though: it may have been ironic, as a way of remarking that there are people in the Foreign Office who are undermining him by releasing this information. Or perhaps it did not mean very much at all, but was just a filler-joke while he thought up what to say next.

    Philip Taylor suggests it's short for "well I never did". The OED confirms this is a variant (I don't recall coming across it) but doesn't confirm it came first. It plausibly suggests that "well I never" may be a short form of phrases such as this one attested from 1816: "Well, I never was so surprised!" In that case, I wonder if "well I never did" is intended as a short form of a phrase such as "well I never did hear of such a thing!".

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 4:43 am

    RP ("Well I never did [hear of such a thing]") — I was thinking along exactly the same lines; it seems perfectly logical, but I am not convinced that I have ever heard it spoken in full.

  17. ===Dan said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 5:27 am

    "Collegiate uh friendly way?" It seems to me that he may have been trying for "collegial" and couldn't find the word, so switched to a synonym?

    [(myl) Yes, I assume that this was basically a malapropism, recognized and corrected via a plainer word.]

  18. AntC said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 6:05 am

    @David je te remercier tres bien.

    éclairement Google translate ne parler pas le Franglais: ç'est affreu totale.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 6:08 am

    Perhaps "congenial" rather than "collegial" ? The former is rather more common than the latter, especially when the latter is used with OED sense 3a, "of or belonging to a ‘collegium’ or college, or to a body of persons associated as colleagues in the performance of any function" or 3c, "of or pertaining to a collegium" where "collegium" = "in Russia: an advisory board or committee".

  20. John Swindle said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 7:23 am


  21. John Swindle said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 7:28 am

    As ===Dan said. All colleagues here, all friendly, and we can work it out together, we and the tur- I mean, the French. No?

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 7:43 am

    Google returns circa 17200 hits for "boris johnson" + "collegial" and only circa 7500 for "boris johnson" + "congenial", so I yield to my betters.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 7:47 am

    Martha, AntC, Picky, and RP are right. I'm sure my middle-school classmates and I did this, though at the moment I only remember code-switching ("Ayez de la fun") and deliberate mispronunciations ("Moy aussie", with /s/ not /z/, for "Moi aussi"). A college friend who had taken Spanish was fond of an example like Johnson's: "Dos malo" for "Two (=too) bad."

    By the way, I knew "I never!" from American books, usually set in the past, but I don't think I've ever heard it.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 7:48 am

    However … "boris johnson" + "collegial" +site:.uk yields only 493 hits, whilst "boris johnson" + "congenial" +site:.uk yields 786; I therefore wonder whether "collegial" is more common in non-British usage whilst "congenial" is more common over here … In which case, perhaps he really did intend "congenial" after all !

  25. Giles said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 8:24 am

    +1 to AntC, David and Picky's interpretation. My background is a few notches less posh than Johnson's, and deliberately using Franglais for comic effect is pretty common amongst my friends and family – "let's frapper la rue", etc. Miles Kington a beaucoup à repondre pour.

    It might be worth noting that Johnson is an admirer of Winston Churchill, who was renowned for this kind of thing — indeed, googling for "Churchill Franglais" turns up this article by Johnson as the third hit for me: https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2014/11/boris-johnson-ten-things-about-winston-churchill/ It has the quite wonderful "Si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai"

    So perhaps he's using it to play to his voters — he needs to be elected by members of the Tory party, many of whom will recognise the style of humour, and some of whom might see it as a sign that he's a new Churchill.

    If it's the latter, I suspect they'll be tristement dissapointé.

  26. Keith said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 8:26 am

    I'm sure that this is an example of the BJ's famous humour: making a calque "bien je jamais" for "well I never", knowing full well that the audience is also competent enough in French to know that the error is deliberate.

    He's saying "I know that you, my audience, are intelligent and cultivated enough to understand my joke, and that puts us in the same little social group".

    Listening to him give interviews like that, and to his appearance on "Have I got News For You", it is easy to imagine him as being an amiable, fairly intelligent kind of "all round good egg", with a bumbling, even shambolic appearance that makes him appear entirely inoffensive and far from dangerous.


  27. David L said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 10:58 am

    This all seems very consistent with the Boris Johnson's view that all nations besides the English are essentially childlike, and therefore to be dealt with as a smarty-pants schoolteacher deals with dim pupils.

  28. Yastreblyansky said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 11:47 am

    Schoolboy calque seems correct. Example from L.P. Hartley, "The Go-Between", 2011 https://books.google.com/books?id=NDzighfP5hcC&pg=PT169&lpg=PT169&dq=%22bien+je+jamais%22&source=bl&ots=KP2eMFdg9p&sig=ACfU3U2LEf4CPhHvwIsWbQ4W9ipXZkxZyQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiwpeGHkY_jAhVmmeAKHSPlAS0Q6AEwBXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22bien%20je%20jamais%22&f=false

    And Johnson himself, in The Telegraph, 2005 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3617001/The-French-must-give-Giscard-a-rocket.html: "It is altogether choquant, they say, when they have finished reading it. It is nothing but neo-liberalisme and turbo-Thatcherisme. Voyez! they say, pointing with horror at article 1-3 paragraph 2. It is the law of the jungle, the free market red in tooth and claw. See where it is written that there shall be "an internal market where competition is free and undistorted". An internal market! Free competition! No distortions! Quel horreur, sacre bleu and bien je jamais, they say. The French electorate sway beneath the anti-capitalist rhetoric, and once again the Non campaign is in the ascendant. What is going on, mes amis?"

  29. yastreblyansky said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 11:51 am

    Simon Hoggart reviewing a Johnson speech in The Guardian, October 2013 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/oct/01/boris-johnson-leadership-conservative-conference: "So was it the beginning of the long, slow decline of Boris? Or was it just a weary blip? On Monday night his fringe meeting failed to fill the hall; the same event in Birmingham had been rammed a year ago.

    And we do need some new jokes. To complain would be like moaning that Elton John had performed Candle In The Wind again – it's what people go for. But I have heard many times the one about the former French prime minister Alain Juppé, who was also mayor of Bordeaux ("it's the kind of thing they do in France – it's a very good idea"); and the punchline, in which he tells Juppé that more French people live in London than Bordeaux. The reply was, he says, "bien, je jamais [well, I never]"."

  30. yastreblyansky said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 11:58 am

    Johnson quoted in the Luxembourg press on British success compared with France in 2012 Olympics http://www.lessentiel.lu/fr/jo2012/story/boris-johnson-se-lache-sans-complexe-15407829: "«Well, M. le Président mettez-ça dans votre pipe et fumez-le: Bien je jamais eh» (sic), a-t-il écrit en français, dans une tirade qui évoque furieusement le travail d'un logiciel de traduction automatique approximatif. En visite sur les sites olympiques londoniens, au troisième jour des Jeux, le président Hollande avait plaisanté du démarrage laborieux des Britanniques, alors que la France trônait en troisième position au tableau des médailles."

  31. yastreblyansky said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 12:03 pm

    As a schoolboy calque clearly attested in L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953): "‘Eh bien, je jamais!’ he rejoined, but I knew that I had
    scored, for the ‘Eh bien, je jamais’, though ironical, was a
    current admission of being impressed, and we returned
    for a while to our mother tongue, or rather to medieval and
    facetious versions of it. Nearly every term it happened that certain words and
    phrases ran like wild-fire through the school and acquired a
    sort of fetishistic value. Everyone used them, but no one
    ever knew who started them."

  32. yastreblyansky said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 12:06 pm

    Also Hartley: "‘Eh bien, je jamais! e’est un couple,’ he whispered, ‘un
    couple qui fait le cuiller.’

    ‘Fait le cuiller?’ I echoed, stupidly.

    ‘Spooning, you idiot. Let’s go and rout them out.’ "

  33. yastreblyansky said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

    And lastly, under Johnson's own byline in The Telegraph, 2005 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3617001/The-French-must-give-Giscard-a-rocket.html: "It is altogether choquant, they say, when they have finished reading it. It is nothing but neo-liberalisme and turbo-Thatcherisme. Voyez! they say, pointing with horror at article 1-3 paragraph 2. It is the law of the jungle, the free market red in tooth and claw. See where it is written that there shall be "an internal market where competition is free and undistorted". An internal market! Free competition! No distortions! Quel horreur, sacre bleu and bien je jamais, they say. The French electorate sway beneath the anti-capitalist rhetoric, and once again the Non campaign is in the ascendant. What is going on, mes amis?"

  34. bratschegirl said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

    "Well, I never!" is familiar to me as the sort of phrase likely to be attributed to the stereotypical Southern belle, or any "well-brought-up" (whatever that means) American woman of perhaps the 1950s and earlier, when confronted with off-color language or impudent behavior.

  35. David Marjanović said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 3:28 pm

    deliberate mispronunciations ("Moy aussie", with /s/ not /z/, for "Moi aussi")

    The other way around: aussi has [s] in the original, while in English spelling ss is sometimes a lie and stands for [z], as in scissors, Missouri, Aussie.

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 3:51 pm

    Terence Rattigan's play French Without Tears (1936) had "Elle a des idées au-dessus de sa gare" for "She has ideas above her station."

    Speaking of Churchill, is it or is it not true that when looking back at his past while speaking to the French National Assembly, he said the following?

    "Quand je regarde mon derrière, je vois qu'il est divisé en deux parties."

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 3:57 pm

    David Marjanović: I suppose I'm getting my just "desserts" for the way I put that. I meant that we said "aussie" with the American pronunciation, that is with an /s/, not a /z/ as the word "Aussie" might mislead you into thinking I meant. /ˈɔsi/.

    Would it have been better to say we pronounced "aussi" to rhyme with "bossy"?

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 4:00 pm

    I supposed I'd have needed to add that I pronounce "bossy" with the THOUGHT vowel—it's in my CLOTH class.

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 4:59 pm

    And I have to confess that it is only through David M's most recent contribution that I have learned that "Missouri" is pronounced with /z/ and not /s/, as I have (clearly wrongly) assumed for the last 65 years or so …

  40. Picky said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 3:37 am

    “Well I never!” is a very familiar expression to this BrE speaker, though perhaps it’s getting dated. So is “Well I never did!” although that sounds a bit stagey. Related no doubt to “Well, did you ever?!” which I suppose to be something one says at a swell American party.

  41. Rose Eneri said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 6:40 am

    "Well, I never did hear of such a thing" was often uttered with indignation by a Southern (American) belle. In my mind, I can hear Scarlett O'Hara saying this in "Gone with the Wind" and Laurey Williams in "Oklahoma!"

  42. Steve Bacher said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 6:18 pm

    Or Jon Stewart doing his imitation of Sen. Lindsey Graham…

  43. Cranky said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

    Here's a contemporary occurrence of 'Well, I never' in the wild at approx 0.03 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcSQXef5OJk. In fact, that cartoon version of Peter Rabbit uses the phrase regularly, perhaps because it sounds old-fashioned. On a short search, both Tommy Brock and Mr Bouncer — to my ears, occupying different ends of the cartoon's English-accent spectrum — also use it.

  44. /df said,

    July 3, 2019 @ 5:44 am

    A big G search for 'well "i never" site:https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/148/peter-rabbit-and-other-stories/' indicates that the only original use was "Well, I never did!" in "The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan" (ca. 1900), where the cat's speech as a whole does seem dated — especially for a cat, often held to be "cool", "hep-" or "gone".

    If there is a decline in the use of BrE "Well, I never!" to signal exaggerated shock, is it because of the continuing popularity of "Well [she|he|etc] would, wouldn't [she|he|etc]?" (Profumo sex scandal, 1963) and the newly popular cliché "I was shocked, shocked [I tell you], …" ("Casablanca", 1942, via all of TV and the Internet)? Can't anyone think of an original form?

    For me it was a dead cert that Boris was forming a humorous calque, even without the chapters and verses uncovered above. From the perspective of L'essentiel (@yastreblyansky 2019-06-29 11:58), he is prone to make "des borborygmes" (tummy rumbles). Nonetheless, there are quite a few idioms that do translate word-for-word between French and English: "parler du Diable", "oeufs dans le même panier", etc.

    In British English, French stands for the "nearest foreign". Boris's ironic use of "as we say in french" also recalls the traditional use of "French" to refer to something out of the ordinary or risqué: "Pardon my French, but it's a bloody mess", "French kiss", "French letter". A fair proportion of the population has an education that qualifies them to appreciate Franglais while not allowing for anything as fancy as talking to French speakers. Politicians like Heath and Blair heard doing so were suspect, even despite Heath's dreadful accent. The need to use actual French has fallen away as French people are more likely to speak English and less likely to refuse to do so, with entire areas of the French countryside becoming Anglophone in the summer holidays.

  45. PeterL said,

    July 5, 2019 @ 2:04 am

    In Canada, pseudo-French and pseudo-English are sometimes used for humour:
    "Canadian youth culture (especially in British Columbia and southeastern Ontario) purposely uses Franglais for its comical or euphemistic characteristics".

    As an ex-British Columbian, I can attest to hearing and using le grand fromage ("the big cheese"), etc. I've also heard deliberate mispronunciations, such as "mercy buttercups" ("merci beaucoup") or "silver plate" ("s'il vous plaît").

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