ACCORDING TO the highly regarded Paris glossy, Le Point, the French don’t wash very much. In fact, nine out of 10 citizens admitted to not making regular use of soap. If pushed beyond the stoic Gallic shrug, most of those questioned would probably justify their grubby state with a cry of “we have perfume”! Nine out of 10 women and half the men douse themselves with one exotically enticing fragrance or another on a daily basis!
Folks in France are not too hot on dental hygiene either, but then there is no immediate need. Copious amounts of garlic and Camembert washed down with a continental measure of Pernod or Ricard is enough to kill off the most nauseous of odours. While Johnny Hallyday, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaff still enchant the world, the mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, has said “rien ne va plus” to the French language, describing it as obsolete.
In the face of being taken to court by 21 disgruntled language school proprietors, the official continues to lambast the idiom, claiming the grammar is so pathetic that it is even incapable of dealing with numbers – and he may have a point. Japanese minimalism does not admire the fact that it takes four words to say 99 – quatre-vingt-dix-neuf. Staying with numbers for a moment, most French phrases, which have passed into common usage, seem to relate to sex – soixante-neuf, ménage a trois – the mind boggles! There are exceptions, of course – where would we be without déjà vu, raison d’être” or joi de vivre?
But mostly, French only comes in handy outside the bedroom when trying to interpret most restaurant menus. Oh, and they can’t play football anymore either – les amis, world champs in 98, draw with Switzerland these days, are more like snails, whine and fall over their own frogs’ legs. C’est la vie!
Meanwhile, the Germans are learning to laugh ahead of the big occasion. Hundreds of solid “Burgers” are flocking to laughter schools set up across the country by Professor Heiner Uber. Two-day sessions cost 200 euros, in itself no laughing matter. Earnest students are encouraged to flap their arms up and down and cluck like chickens in an effort to achieve some jolliness. One participating nurse said: “We look like a bunch of crazy people.” Ex-Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, famed for propositioning close pal Maggie Thatcher with “you can say you to me”, once expressed the sentiment that Germans were so afraid of laughter that they would hide in a bunker.
New “strong trooper” Angela Merkel does not exactly have them rolling in the aisles either. I fear innovative therapy will not lighten up the “fatherland”. Come June, Klinsmann’s clowns will prove less than the Ubermenchen their illustrious predecessors were (1954, 1974, 1990), becoming more adept at mimicking fleeing poultry seeking Lebenstraum than waging a ballistic Blitzkrieg.
In England, an online word exchange is encouraging slummy mummies, hoodies and Sudoku widows to put forward new words for inclusion in Collins’ and other contemporary dictionaries. Candidates from last year include ‘grief inflation’ (tsunami), ‘toxic soup’ (New Orleans), ‘Car B-Q’ (Paris riots), ‘God’s Rottweiller’ (Pope) and ‘Chavellers cheques’ (unemployment benefit).
Football players in Britain are among the top earners, but do they have the class to win the biggest trophy in the world? Class-consciousness has been a prevalent trait of society for centuries – political correctness demands denial today, but its presence is stronger than ever. In America, the pecking order is very straightforward, status being based purely on money. In England, the situation is more complicated. Aristocracy can live in squalor, while self-made millionaires splashing out on a lavish mansion will inescapably remain working class. Speech, the way you pronounce and use words define your class, your roots. Do you say “greens” or “vegetables”? “Pardon” or “sorry”? “Toilet” or “lavatory”? “Serviette or “napkin”? Do you have “dinner” rather than “lunch”, “tea” instead of “supper”? Do you sit on a “settee” or a “sofa”? I suspect the England 11 are more at home with the first set of words than the latter, thus revealing their working or lower middle class backgrounds, insufficient to outclass those who have fought their way out of some third world slum.
My last candidates for this piece of tongue-in-cheek provocation are our American cousins. As already mentioned by the boys from Liverpool, “money can’t buy you love” (or class) other than in the land of plenty. But, even in 1994, when the World Cup was staged across the Atlantic, the host’s “unlimited possibilities” were exposed as clearly finite.
Plain English does not present as much of a problem to the US soccer heroes as do misunderstandings. The re-election of Dubaya was the grandest of these, which the wannabe Texas oilman then went on to compound to the fullest. The President is not a man to be underestimated: how eloquent will the shouts in Germany be if the nation’s most gifted follow the example of their foremost citizen? Rarely is the question asked “is our children learning”? (Indeed George!) “More and more of our imports come from overseas” (really?) Or even, “I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully” (come back, Eric Cantona, all is forgiven!)
Another White House hopeful, as yet prevented from seeking higher office by the constitution barring foreign-born citizens from standing, is the Governor of California, Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Austrian former Mr. Universe thinks that the US should close the borders with Mexico to stop “all of those people coming across”. A hasty retraction blaming “language problems” did not appease the large Hispanic community and the Americans will hope that they will not have to face Mexico’s wrath in Germany. Anyway, international communication difficulties on the pitch between the likes of McBride, Reyna, Berhalter and Bocanegra should cause enough chaos!
My tip is Japan: no one can understand a word they are saying, they wash a lot, are all Samurai, and always have a polite smile at the ready – just don’t go to a Karaoke bar with them!