• Language spoken: French
  • Language family: Romance

If you need only one story to illustrate the importance of precision and register in the French language, have this one.

Nicolas Anelka was sent home from the 2010 World Cup after using some particularly salty language towards manager Raymond Domenech. At half-time against Mexico, Anelka told Domenech to “go fuck yourself, you son of a whore”  (va te faire enculer, sale fils de pute).

But Domenech later said that what really rankled was not Anelka’s suggestion of where he should go, what he should do, or even how Madame Domenech earns her corn. What got to him was that Anelka had addressed him with the informal version of the word “you” (tu, rather than vous).

Nuance and tradition

For people such as Domenech, there is a world of nuance captured in a word as simple as ‘you’. Language governs social situations and you must respect its use. If not, you cause offence.

This linguistic precision goes back to France’s proud tradition of philosophy, in which clear thought demands clear expression.

And this brand of French protectionism doesn’t look kindly on many current players, who are accused of speaking with a slang-happy disregard for correctness. As Dr. Jonathan Ervine has pointed out, this is a problem that speaks to social issues in contemporary France, in which a marginalised, often immigrant population are accused of lacking respect for traditional values.  

Pundit Pierre Menès, for example, accused Patrice Evra – who, like Thierry Henry and Anthony Martial, grew up in the Les Ulis estate near Paris – of “torturing the French language”.

Use and accents

On a lighter note, Franck Ribery is famously pas un lumière (lit. “not a light”, fig. “not very bright”) and has a unique approach to language, misusing expressions and generally getting his wires mixed up. They lose something in translation but if you’re a French speaker, they’re worth a look.

Didier Deschamps is famed for his accent méridional (south-west accent), drawing out his syllables and making words like tactique and technique a particular source of fun. After continued ribbing, Deschamps is much more guarded about the way he speaks, which is a shame.

Choice phrases

At Brazil 2014, when Arjen Robben rounded off a 5-1 rout for the Netherlands against Spain, commentator Omar da Fonseca declared that the Dutchman had “made love to them [the Spanish] without foreplay” (il leur a fait l’amour sans préliminaire). Unsurprisingly, Omar’s ejaculation (sorry) has left its mark (and again) on the French footballing lexicon.

Moving on. A nutmeg is a petit pont (lit. “little bridge”), which evokes how humiliatingly static the trick leaves its victim. Taking things one step further, the French also have the grand pont (“big bridge”), which we in England refer to as the old knock-it-one-side-and-run-round-the-other manoeuvre. Top marks for brevity, Marianne.

A few others worth noting:

  • Café crème: any move which humiliates your opponent
  • Caviar: a particularly fine pass leading to a chance
  • Enrhumer: lit. to give someone a cold (un rhume), fig. to do them with a fine bit of dribbling
  • Une aile de pigeon: lit. a pigeon’s wing, fig. to play the ball with the outside of the foot while your leg is bent. Zlatan shows you how

Nicknames

The French love a nickname, going back to Le Divin Chauve (“The Divine Baldie” – Barthez), Le Président (Laurent Blanc), Zizou (Zidane) and Titi (Thierry Henry).

Today, Blaise Matuidi’s style of play has earned him the nickname Charo (“Scavenger”), while Paul Pogba is creating a brand around the name Pogboom. Benzema is known as Benz (as in Mercedes), while close pal and confidant Mathieu Valbuena is the altogether more humble petit vélo (“little bike”).

Rivals

Next-door neighbours Italy are an old foe, and are known as the ritals. This began with the Italian influx into France following World War II, when immigration papers were marked with “r.ital” for réfugié italien. It wasn’t originally an insult, although this is less the case today.

The English – Les rosbifs (francified version of “roast beefs”) – also come in for a fair bit of stick. Back in the day (the day in this case being during the Hundred Years War, so around the 1400s), they were also known as Les goddams, which is quite excellent.

A particular vitriol is increasingly reserved for Spain, who are seen to be not in the least bit fairplay (a word the French have adopted as their own).

Songs they sing

As we’ll see in many of the larger countries in Europe, crowd chanting is less developed at national level compared with club games.  You’ll hear the Euro’s best and bloodiest national anthem La Marseillaise, chants of Allez les Bleus, and one which has popular variants across Europe but is largely ignored in the UK: “Whoever isn’t jumping isn’t French” (qui ne saute pas n’est pas français).


With thanks to Dr. Jonathan Ervine at the University of Bangor, Dr. John McKeane at the University of Reading,  Bastien Michel at Tout le monde s’en foot, Bruno Colombari at Chroniques bleues and Brendán MacFarlane.