20 October 2022
A linguistic feat.
By Chin Chin
The thing that strikes you about French towns is that the distribution of shops is quite different to what we are used to in England. Away go the hardware shops, the estate agents and the charity shops and in come lots of shoe shops, chemists and traiteurs, although one can never be sure about the latter because, as any reader of Shakespeare will know, false traiteurs are more common than one might expect. Anyway, the chemists or pharmacies seem to be genuine, albeit rather full of beauty products, so while waiting for my companion to do her shopping I thought I might do a little myself.
What I wanted was some medicine for athlete’s foot and so in the time-honoured manner of men who find it embarrassing to discuss personal problems I went into a chemist and examined the shelves. Had I been looking for toenail polish I would have been in business. There were stacks of different products all with photographs of the perfection they would create within my shoes. Unfortunately, however, my French wasn’t good enough to identify the medicine I wanted and, there being a surprising absence of photographs of rotting feet, I was left with no choice but to approach the counter.
“Mlle”, I began. So far so good, if a trifle formal. It was the next bit that was difficult because the linguistic shortcomings which prevented me from identifying the product also made it difficult to explain what I wanted. “Athlete’s foot”, what could be the French for that? I hadn’t the slightest idea. Oh well, I would have to improvise; what distinguished the foot of the athlete from the foot of anybody else? Why, strength of course.
“J’ai les pieds forts”, I began. Mademoiselle looked puzzled. “Les pieds grands?” she asked. No, that wasn’t it at all. I needed a phrase that would express athleticism not size. Those of a great runner for example. Who could I mention? Yes, Achilles of course. The French are fond of the name Achile, so its use might strike a chord.
“Comme Achile”, I added. Unfortunately Achile is a brand of French socks and before I could say “Arret” specimens were being laid out on the counter. No, no, this was all going wrong, I would have to try another tack.
“Ichy” I began promisingly but then there was a snag. I didn’t know the French for toes. Never mind , improvise! I knew the fingers were “doights” so perhaps I could cast across.
“Itchy doights sur les pieds” I explained holding up one foot by way of illustration. Mademoiselle looked at my shoe with an expression of horror and began to edge away from the counter. “Doights sur les pieds?” she looked rather dazed. As I began to unlace my shoe she moved closer to another assistant.
Luckily I didn’t have to expose even my socks because at that moment a Frenchwoman entered the shop and among the requests she made at the next counter I caught the words ”pieds d’athlete”. Well, that was clearly it. No wonder I could not get it. The swine had nicked our expression. France is supposed to be abroad and there isn’t much point in that unless we use different terms. Still, it solved my immediate problem and I left the shop with a small tube in my hand. It has some French wording on it too: “seulement pour usage externe”, I wonder what that means. No doubt I will find out if I experiment a bit.