Boris Johnson: "prenez un grip", "donnez-moi un break"

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Spectacular code-switching:

BJ's language mixing is as tangled as his hair.  He needs a comb for both.


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 1:51 pm

    Heark(en)ing back to our many discussions of gender in recent weeks, I'm wondering if such nakedly borrowed nouns in French are always masculine — unless they are obviously feminine by physical / biological gender.

  2. Laura Morland said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 2:09 pm

    In my experience (living in Paris for ~ 20 years), the gender of borrowed nouns matches the gender of the French name for said noun. For example, our Internet is furnished by "la Livebox" — "box" is feminine because "boîte" is feminine in French.

    However, "break" might find its best French equivalent in the word "pause," (as in "une pause café" = "coffee break"), and so that theory runs dry here.

    On the other hand, the French have already borrowed the word "break" from us – "un break" is the common word for a "station wagon"!

  3. Bob Ladd said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 2:47 pm

    In the UK context, and coming from Johnson, this is almost surely a very special case of code-switching, and it's probably pointless to try to find generalisations. The satrical magazine Private Eye has a long-running column called "Let's Parler Franglais" where this sort of mash-up of the languages is deployed for vaguely humorous purposes. The whole thing was started decades ago by someone called Miles Kington (I don't know whether his books of this stuff led to the Private Eye columns or vice-versa). Kington died several years ago, but whenever Private Eye runs a Let's Parler Franglais column it is always by-lined "Le late Kilomètres Kington".

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 3:46 pm

    Ah youth!

    Quel alec-intelligent! Et comment sont les français réactant a ce sort d'humeur? Mercy buckups.

  5. Tim Buchheim said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 4:09 pm

    I think using masculine "un break" is probably just because "un" sounds more like the English "a" than "une" would.

  6. David L said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 4:56 pm

    As Bob Ladd says, there's a whole lot of sociopolitical subtext here. The central element, to my mind, is that BoJo's Franglais will cheer the Brexit crowd by infantilizing the dreadful Frenchies and demonstrating that they need a stern, schoolmasterly talking-to to knock some sense into their silly heads.

    What the French themselves think of such nonsense is neither here nor there, from BoJo's perspective.

  7. AntC said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 5:09 pm

    "Let's Parler Franglais"

    That started in Punch magazine/under Alan Coren. And was a lot wittier than what BoJo's up to.

    BoJo is speaking standard British Public Schoolboy mashup. It's all set phrases/there's no actual grammar to it/all inserted nouns are masculine.

  8. Narmitaj said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 5:19 pm

    @ Bob Ladd – I believe Miles Kington wrote his Franglais columns for Punch, not Private Eye, and then made books of them.

    The Eye's references now to © Kilomètres Kington are just acknowledging credit when they nick his idea for some topical subject. Rather than for all-purpose French-British interactions, which Kington's, from memory, were, I think the Eye's use of Franglais is generally related to UK-EU or UK-French political discussions.

    Here's Kington, four years after he started, explaining the origin of his Franglais column:

    Before all this, according to Wikipedia Kington worked as a translator in New York in a gap year after school, and then did German and French at Oxford. He spent time writing with Terry Jones, until Michael Palin became available and that stopped.

    I most remember him, though, for doing light comedy songs on the radio & TV, many of which he improvised or anyway produced in short order.

    @ Laura Morland – I see the French word is "break", though if it is from the station wagon or estate type of car it should presumably be spelt "brake", as in "shooting brake".

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 6:19 pm

    « On the other hand, the French have already borrowed the word "break" from us – "un break" is the common word for a "station wagon"! » — interesting. Once upon a time, we had "shooting brakes" (vehicles) in the UK, which I suppose might have been similar to "station wagons" (I don't really know what the latter are). But I think that they were spelled "shooting brakes", not "shooting breaks".

  10. Nat J said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 1:13 am

    I'm not sure how to take the assessment of "spectacular code-switching". "Spectacular" usually has a very positive valence. But Prof. Mair's final comment makes clear that he is less than impressed. I'm just curious for an additional comment.

  11. Chris Partridge said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 2:18 am

    Shooting brakes and station wagons were both styles of horse-drawn carriage used by owners of country estates who liked to have massive weekend parties. Shooting brakes were used in Britain to convey guests and their guns and picnic hampers from the house to the grouse moor, and station wagons were used in the US to convey guests and their luggage from the railway.
    A ‘brake’ was originally a wheeled frame used to train horses but later became a word for any wagon.

  12. Jason said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 2:25 am

    Johnson's French might be serving him better than you think. The syntax might be off, I'm pretty sure that, in the COVID era, Boris Johnson really would like the French to "Prenez un grippe".

  13. AntC said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 3:00 am

    Another Brit comedy classic

    Starting about 1:20 (but you need to watch the set-up). Lauren seems to know her genders.

  14. Not a naive speaker said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 3:34 am

    From Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé:

    three entries for break , all masculine

    From the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française – break (ea se prononce è)

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 5:30 am

    Étymologie de « break »
    (1650) De l’anglais break (« briser »), apparenté au français broyer. D’où lourde voiture à cheval destinée à briser les chevaux pour les dresser avant de les atteler.
    Note : break fait partie — avec coach, sérendipité, etc. — de ces mots dont l'étymologie ne nous renseigne en rien sur le sens actuel.
    Wiktionnaire – licence Creative Commons attribution partage à l’identique 3.0

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 5:32 am

    "Spectacular" does not always have a positive valence.

    "spectacular brawl"
    "spectacular explosion"
    "spectacular crash"

  17. Thomas Rees said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 6:10 am

    Note : break fait partie — avec coach, sérendipité, etc. — de ces mots dont l'étymologie ne nous renseigne en rien sur le sens actuel.

    How often does etymology tell us much of anything about the current meaning?

  18. David Marjanović said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 9:28 am

    What happens to nouns borrowed into gendered languages depends on various combinations of phonological considerations and what the gender of the nearest native equivalent is. Unsurprisingly, there's not always a single unambiguous outcome; German shows regional variation between die ~ das Cola (i.e. Coca Cola) and das ~ der Blog, for example.

    He needs a comb for both.

    Bien au contraire. He tousles his hair every time he's about to step in front of a camera.

  19. Scott P. said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 9:33 am

    Apparently he's been using this since at least 1994:

  20. JJM said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 10:45 am

    Further to David Marjanović, there's the interesting example of the borrowing "gang" in French.

    In French French, it has become "un gang" (masculine); the pronunciation is closer to English "gong".

    But in Canadian French, it has become "une gang" (feminine); here the pronunciation more closely matches English "gang" and that more nasal a sound, echoing other feminine words like banane, canne, gamme, lame, madame and the like, seems to be the reason for it being feminine. "Toute la gang" (the whole gang) is a common Canadian French expression.

    I also have the impression that "gang" came into French French as a more negative term originally (i.e., criminal gang) whereas Canadian French simply borrowed the more upbeat informal AE "group of friends" sense.

  21. Keith said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 11:12 am

    @Philip Taylor
    I used to have a 90" Land Rover Station Wagon in the UK. Use the search term "90 inch Series III Land Rover Station Wagon badge" to see examples of the badge that was on the rear.

    Incidentally, the gender of the word "covid" has been hotly discussed in France over the past eighteen months. Some want it to be feminine, on the grounds that the last letter of "covid" stands for "disease", which in French in the feminine "maladie". Others want it to be masculine on the grounds that early in the pandemic people were talking more about "le coronavirus" and so the gender had already become established.

  22. maidhc said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 4:04 pm

    In Canada there would have been the long-running example of The Happy Gang (1937-1959) on English-language radio. According to Wikipedia, The series also served as the template for CBC's French language service, Les Joyeux Troubadours (fr), which was broadcast from 1941 to 1977.

  23. CuConnacht said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 5:46 pm

    Further to what Laura Morland says above, the Académie Française has ruled that "covid" is feminine, because the d is for disease = la maladie. They note that it is simlarly le FBI but la CIA.

  24. CuConnacht said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 5:48 pm

    I had not read as far as Keith's post when I posted ^ that.

  25. Bloix said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 11:27 pm

    Johnson is not borrowing nouns into French. He's mocking French. As he's not speaking French at all, the question of the gender of the noun in French never arises. Lots of 12-year old boys who have to take French make this joke – they pretend to try to speak French by using a short stock phrase and then quickly return to English – psych!

    The joke is that only pathetic geeks and nerds try to speak French which is a stupid language compared to what normal boys speak which is the only real language which is English.

  26. maidhc said,

    September 24, 2021 @ 1:10 am

    I'm not even English and I'm embarrassed by Boris thinking it would be appropriate to channel his inner Nigel Molesworth in public.

  27. Tom Dawkes said,

    September 24, 2021 @ 4:57 am

    Miles Kington was one of the funniest humorists of the last 50 years. His take on English is typified by He died of cancer in 2008, but not before writing a book on his illness called "How shall I tell the dog": see

  28. R. Fenwick said,

    September 24, 2021 @ 6:30 am

    @Bloix: absolutely. It's exactly the kind of semi-safely veiled bigotry that's a perfect dogwhistle for conservative Brits, and provides Boris with a neatly-quotable soundbite, but functionally it's no more than a classic – almost to the point of caricature – example of the puerile and antiquated public-school soggy-biscuit pseudo-intellectual superciliousness that continues to infect large portions of the British upper-middle class.

  29. Michael Watts said,

    September 25, 2021 @ 1:34 am

    They note that it is simlarly le FBI but la CIA.

    Is "le FBI" possible in French? Shouldn't it be "l'FBI"?

  30. chehrehsho said,

    September 25, 2021 @ 8:43 am

    I believe Miles Kington wrote his Franglais columns for Punch, not Private Eye, and then made books of them.

  31. DJL said,

    September 25, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    As some of you may be aware by now, the Guardian published a piece the other about the connection between BoJo's quote and Miles Kington:

  32. David Marjanović said,

    September 25, 2021 @ 3:39 pm

    Is "le FBI" possible in French? Shouldn't it be "l'FBI"?

    Oddly, le is never reduced before initialisms. The light rail in and around Paris is le RER.

    It's as if they all began with an h aspiré: "hFBI", "hRER"… :-)

  33. AntC said,

    September 25, 2021 @ 5:54 pm

    [From the Guardian piece] The PG Tips tea company advertised their wares with a cycling chimp competing in the Tour de France and the catchphrase “Avez-vous un cuppa”.

    Ah, that was a trip down memory lane. To this day I have a fridge magnet of a PG Tips chimp; a memento from my grandparents' house.

    "Can you ride tandem?" indeed.

  34. George said,

    September 27, 2021 @ 5:55 am

    @David Marjanović

    Not exactly. The article is reduced/elided before initialisms where the first letter (as opposed to the first sound) is a vowel. So it's l'ONU or l'OVNI.

  35. George said,

    September 27, 2021 @ 6:04 am

    … acronymic initialisations, you'll say (and you'd be right). So not the best examples. How about l'OAS or l'IVG? Both feminine, so it wouldn't be le, you'll say (and you'd be right). Hmm, you might be onto something here…

  36. George Hegarty said,

    September 27, 2021 @ 6:18 am

    … although ATS (Appareil de Télécommunication pour Sourds) would appear to buck the trend.

  37. Bloix said,

    September 28, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    This morning's Washington Post has an op-ed titled "Un mot pour Boris Johnson" which includes the following:
    "Sortes-out vos horribles problems de border before lecturer le rest du monde."
    "This vert et généralement pleasant Terre."
    "Tres désolé, Monsieur Johnson, but cette explication ne wash pas."
    "Johnson famously told his fellow-countrymen that they would have their cake and eat it…. Sadly, votre gouvernement cannot runner un toy train, let alone une patisserie."

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