Parlez-vous franglais? Boris Johnson’s mangled French is a nod to Churchill

Analysis: the prime minister joins Del Boy and Shakespeare in fusing French-English for effect

Boris Johnson may have been channelling his inner Winston Churchill by adopting “franglais” in chiding French president Emmanuel Macron to “prenez un grip” and “donnez-moi un break” over the Aukus military pact.

The prime minister has credited the second world war leader with deploying “superb and menacing franglais” when he warned Gen Charles de Gaulle: “Si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai.” (Which roughly translates as: “If you double-cross me, I will liquidate you.”)

Though some other accounts differ, substituting the quote “double-crosserez” with “m’obstaclerez” (“obstruct me”), Johnson’s admiration for such linguistic acrobatics sees him describe Churchill in his biography of the former British prime minister as being “responsible for some of the greatest franglais of all time”.

Franglais has come a long way since the Norman Conquest of 1066, though the word – a (French) portmanteau of français and anglais – seems only to have been officially coined in 1959 by French grammarian Max Rat in an article published in France-Soir.

References to this macaronic language (a mixture, or hybrid tongue) appear in Chaucer and Shakespeare. The 19th-century American writer Mark Twain used a mixture of French and English in his book The Innocents Abroad for comedic effect. In the trenches during the first world war, English-speaking troops evolved “Tommy French”.

It was really popularised by the French academic, novelist and critic René Étiemble, in his denunciation of the overuse of English words in French, Parlez-vous franglais?, in 1964.

But it was from the 1970s onwards that it really entered popular culture in the UK. 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”. Another fictional practitioner was Miss Piggy, a character in the Muppet Show, whose glamour was underscored with her overuse of “moi” and “mon petit cheri”.

In the UK, the satirist and columnist Miles Kington began writing his “Franglais” columns – a comical mixture of English and French – in Punch magazine, later published as a series of books entitled “Let’s Parler Franglais!”. After he died in 2008, the BBC headlined its obituary: “Au revoir Mister Franglais.

The 1975 hit film Monty Python and the Holy Grail saw French castle guard John Cleese order his troops to “fetchez la vache”, to their initial bemusement, before they fetched and catapulted a cow at the Britons. And the 1981 hit by Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, (Si Si) Je suis un rock star, was an absolute masterclass in the art of franglais, with lines including “Je habiter la a la south of France, voulez vous partir with me?” and “come and rester le with me in France”.

Franglais has seen “le soccer”, “le hotdog” and “le weekend” gain traction, with the latter reportedly particularly irritating to French purists. In 2013 there was a famous ban – by French governmental decree – of the word “hashtag”, replacing it with the French equivalent “mot-diese”.

Perhaps the best – or least proficient – exponent of the craft was the character Del Boy in the hit comedy series Only Fools and Horses. His examples, said with absolute conviction, included the phrases “mangetout” and “bain marie”, for “no problem”, “bonnet de douche” (shower cap) for “excellent”, and “creme de la menthe” for “the very best”.


Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Boris Johnson adores Churchill, but now he's flirting with Roosevelt
In a speech on Tuesday, Johnson offers himself up as architect of British New Deal

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

29, Jun, 2020 @8:01 PM

Article image
Macron privately called Boris Johnson a ‘clown’, says French magazine
Report follows French president’s complaint about PM’s behaviour after they discussed sinking of refugee boat in the Channel

Tom Ambrose

02, Dec, 2021 @12:18 AM

Article image
Johnson’s claim Dutch PM offered to mediate in Brexit row not true, say sources
Insiders reject inference of division among EU members on Northern Ireland issue

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Heather Stewart in New York

20, Sep, 2021 @1:47 PM

Article image
Churchill would have been a committed voter to remain in EU
Imperialist and Atlanticist, but given what we know about his vision and approach, he would be in Cameron not Johnson camp

Martin Kettle

09, May, 2016 @2:10 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson decried purchase of Churchill's private papers
His criticism in 1995 chimed with No 10 misgivings over ownership of PM records, National Archives show

Owen Bowcott and Caroline Davies

30, Dec, 2020 @12:01 AM

Article image
Despite the tough love, Johnson’s EU sortie has been a relative success
PM has lined up Brussels, Paris and Berlin as fall guys for any failure to find Brexit solutions

Heather Stewart Political editor

22, Aug, 2019 @6:07 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson clashes with Emmanuel Macron over Brexit
Foreign secretary hits back at French president’s invitation to Indian students, boasting of numbers coming to UK

Peter Walker Political correspondent

11, Mar, 2018 @6:34 PM

Article image
Perfidious Albion: why French faith in Boris Johnson has nosedived
Analysis: Emmanuel Macron’s government thinks UK wishes to use France to keep Brexit alive in British politics

Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor

16, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Churchill Fellowship rejects criticism from Boris Johnson after website rebrand
Churchill’s grandson oversaw change that had almost no complaints until Daily Mail and Sun coverage

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

09, Sep, 2021 @7:06 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson proposes a 22-mile bridge across the Channel
Foreign secretary discusses idea with French president Emmanuel Macron as a way to enhance transport links after Brexit

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

19, Jan, 2018 @7:32 AM