Liver and virgins

The Cambridge French-English Thesaurus

May 1, 1998

This guide to modern French vocabulary is aimed, as the blurb on the back cover puts it, "at all English-speaking learners and users of French at intermediate and more advanced levels". The brief preface expresses the hope that it will be used "as a tool for prose translation, as an inspiration for composition or simply as a means of browsing through the French language for pleasure".

As its title indicates, it is arranged as a thesaurus, with Roget as its obvious model. Words are grouped according to areas of discourse, going from position, movement and travel, through sections such as the natural environment, society, family and relationships, emotions, feelings and attitudes, knowledge and thought processes, body and health, food and drink, money, worth, economy, abstract terms to describe this world, and ending with ways of communicating. The thesaurus also has an English-French index and French-English index, each of which gives the number of the section and sub-section in which the word can be found.

There are a number of other quotations students of French ought to know and interesting reminders of how the French educational system works. It took me some time to cotton on to the idea that the French counted backwards, having the children start secondary school en cinqui me to end up en premi re, and many of my students have still not caught on to the fact mentioned under laique that public education in France is strictly secular, with no acts of public worship.

The book will give considerable enjoyment and some instruction. I liked the French way of telling someone to mind his own business - "Chacun pour soi et les vaches seront bien gardees" - and there is a useful reminder that whereas the associations of the word suburb in English are those of a certain bourgeois comfort and respectability, the apparent equivalents in French, whether faubourg or banlieue, have rather the more negative connotations of deprivation and disorder. It is also useful to be reminded that pederaste simply means a homosexual, and does not have the implication of using young boys as sexual objects. It would, however, also have been useful to be told that the Americanism "gay" has now made its way into French.

Nevertheless, it is an open question whether the undergraduate should invest in this book rather than one of its competitors. Marie-No lle Lamy's thesaurus contains no bibliography, and anyone doing a prose and trying to find out how to translate "blunt", "shallow" or "timing" will remain unsatisfied ("restera sur sa faim", an expression oddly absent from the entry "faim"). The preface promises help with false friends, words that look the same in both languages but have a different meaning, and it is useful to be reminded that notoire means "well-known" rather than "notorious". But other faux amis such as abusif ("unauthorised"), evidence ("that which is self-evident", not "evidence", which is preuves or temoignages) or suffisant (not only "sufficient" but "self-satisfied") are not mentioned or not explained.

There are also a number of other weaknesses that make this book a less satisfactory one than its French authorship ought to have produced. La langue de bois, for example, is not really "the way politicians speak when avoiding questions", or, as Lamy also translates it "weasel words". It is much more the French equivalent of Orwell's newspeak, the constant mouthing of empty slogans. It is certainly the case that the judicial systems in France, Britain and the United States are very different, and Lamy is right to say that it is "very difficult to provide exact translations". The fact nevertheless remains that it is not accurate to translate le parquet as "the legal profession".

It is, on the other hand, quite a good idea to translate "tu vas avoir une crise de foie" as "you'll upset your digestion". Such a crisis can, I have been reliably informed, be brought about by eating such eminently digestible foods such as oranges, olives or tomatoes, and the liver occupies so central a place in French medical mythology that the literal English equivalent of une crise de foie is virtually meaningless. Lamy also offers the reminder that vierge is used "of females only". When speaking of a man, as can be checked from an incident in the second volume of Jean-Paul Sartre's Les Chemins de la Liberte, Le Sursis, the word is puceau. For when a prostitute from Martinique has just seduced the young Philippe, a character based on the poet Baudelaire, and he lies asleep, half naked on her bed, one of her friends sees him, clicks her tongue in appreciation, and asks "c'est un puceau?", the satisfied reply was "C'etait" (he was).

Philip Thody is emeritus professor of French, University of Leeds.

The Cambridge French-English Thesaurus

Author - Marie Noëlle Lamy
ISBN - 0 521 56348 8 and 42581 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.95
Pages - 326

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