I have been told numerous times that French was the most romantic language, and, to be frank, it has always puzzled me. Let me explain.
When it comes to the language, it is clear that French has given English, and other languages for that matter a plethora of words relating to romance and sex. “Affair”, “rendez-vous”, “fiancé”, “liaison”, “femme fatale”, “cajole”, “tête-à-tête” and “ménage à trois” certainly spice up courtship and love-making in the English language. More generally, it seems any word pronounced with a French accent, i.e. with the stress on last syllable, acquires in the process a certain romantic or sexy…. frisson. Fashion and perfume brands exploit it mercilessly.
As a Frenchwoman, a French teacher and a lover of words, it is quite lovely to see my language striking forth into the world with this reputation. It certainly helps make it attractive to potential learners, or lovers… But sometimes I wonder whether foreigners realise how un-sexy French language is to French ears. If you want to keep the glamour alive, you may want to stop reading now, but if you would like to be enlightened, then read on.
Let’s start with “ooh la la”, which in English is used when something / someone is sexy. In French Oh là là is never ever used in that context. Its meaning ranges from mild surprise (“Oh my god”), good or bad, to quite serious dismay, in which case, funnily, the là is repeated up to six times. But overall, oh là là is not a good thing.
Affaire just means “business”, and, etymologically speaking, à faire is “to do”, so far away from any sort of dalliance… A rendez-vous is an appointment, romantic perhaps, but possibly at the bank or the dentist’s too. A tête-à-tête is simply an private conversation between two people. If your boss asks for a tête-à-tête, you may well be in serious trouble already, let alone if you mistake their intentions! And if ménage à trois is sometimes saucy, it normally means three people living together. There are few words less romantic than ménage, which is “marriage” or “household” (heureux en ménage is “happily married”) and also, rather prosaically, “cleaning”…
Let’s look now at some of the words French people actually use when talking about romance and sex. Faire la cour, ou courtiser, are indeed delightful, but, unfortunately, slightly formal and old-fashioned. It is more common to use draguer, “to flirt”. Another possible translation of the word draguer is “to dredge”. Eww. That is probably why the French language has flirter, which, as a bonus, contains the word fleur)
Note that the French language has no word for “a hug”. “To hug” is serrer dans ses bras, “squeeze in one’s arms”, which is more of a description. Embrasser, built from bras, “arms” used to mean “to hug”, and still means “to embrace”, but its meaning has slided over time, and it has come to mean “to kiss”. Pity French pupils when they try to understand works of classical literature. Misinterpretations are both common and hilarious.
If courtship goes well, you may get un baiser, which is a kiss… But beware, nowadays baiser as a verb is NOT “to kiss”, but a word beginning in f and rhyming with duck! There seems to be an inflation in meaning of baiser, similar to the one of embrasser. Hence much hilarity in French literature classrooms, and sometimes when foreigners make awkward mistakes…
If you successfully avoid the trap of baiser, you may progress matters to a long and romantic French kiss… Encapsulating all the glamour of French and the French, the French kiss sounds much nicer in English than in French! Indeed, “To give a French kiss to somebody” is rouler une pelle, literally “roll them a shovel”. Nice. Rather confusingly, however, in French le French kiss, is the modest romantic kiss that ends all the good Hollywood movies of the sixties. Aren’t languages funny.
The next stage along, surely, is foreplay. That’s préliminaires in French. How awful is that word? At least in “foreplay” there is the notion of play, which is sweet. Préliminaires just sounds like the clinical, boring but necessary logistic preparations for an important operation, possibly military! Etymologically speaking, limen in Latin is the threshold; so préliminaires are whatever happens before the threshold, before the serious business commences. So the word préliminaires implies that only penile penetration is a real sex act. There are currently calls from feminists, LGBTQ+ representatives and sexologists in France, to stop using it. Language has an impact on thought, and needs challenging for society to evolve. For female sexuality to be considered as important as male sexuality, and for sexuality to be inclusive and plural in general, let’s relegate préliminaires to the archives, and use the delightful caresses instead.
So, French, a romantic language? Thank goodness faire l’amour sounds so good. Happy Valentine’s day.