Saturday, June 27, 2009

French to English Lexicon: Herbs and Spices, Part 2

mint Before I give you a second set of French to English herbs and spices, I'll tell you about one of my favorites - mint.

I used to suffer from tummy pain.  I was either bloated, constipated or would have those "shooting pains" making me bend over.  Laxatives helped but relief was temporary at best.

One day I was surfing the Net for ""abdominal pain" and I landed on Dr. Weil's web site.  His advice was to drink plenty of peppermint tea or to chew on fennel seeds.

I tried the peppermint tea first.  Best free advice I ever got! I no longer suffer from chronic abdominal pain. 

I'm not saying that peppermint is the answer to stomach trouble for everyone, but it did help me.  The usual advice about seeing your doctor if you have chronic pain stands.

I've always wondered about the difference between mint, peppermint and spearmint.  Here's what I found:

Mint is the general name and there are many kinds, two of which are peppermint and spearmint.  According to the Field Guide of Herbs and Spices by Aliza Green (Quirk Books, 2006), peppermint is a natural hybrid of water mint and spearmint.  It has smooth oval leaves with serrated edges and is of a dark, green color, giving off a  peppery, yet cooling flavor.

Spearmint has oval pointed leaves, a deep green color and a cooling but not pungent flavor.  Ms. Green says that today, most spearmint is used in the chewing gum industry.

Now, part 2 of your French to English lexicon:



menthe mint
menthe poivrée peppermint
menthe à épis (ou menthe verte) spearmint
graine de carvi caraway seed
anise étoilé star anise
épine vinette barberry
sarriette savoury
sauge sage
aneth dill
piment de Jamaïque

annatto (ou achiotte) annatto
oseille sorrel
estragon tarragon
marjolaine marjoram

Which spices or herbs do you like?


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

French to English Lexicon for Herbs and Spices, Part 1

"So much to read in food labels here", my father used to say when he lived in Montreal briefly. 

"Dad, just read the English part." 

"Oh," he'd say, and then shrug.  To him, there was no way to avoid the other language. 

As we sat down for breakfast one morning, he eyed the cereal box.  "Doesn't official bilingualism cost this country a lot of money?"

"I suppose so, dad, but it makes life more vibrant, don't you think?  Like wearing 2 hats or having 2 brains - the brain gets stretched when it has to grapple with another language day in and day out."

"I guess", he said.  I don't think he was ever convinced.

The upside about being an officially bilingual country is that we tend to repeat what we say:  once in English and again in herbs and spices 1 French.  That rule applies to everything:  building signs, road signs, food packaging, government documents, toy user manuals - and whatever you can think of.

For someone like me who makes it a point to collect recipes (I run a food blog on wordpress), bilingual food packaging is a big help.

Go to any supermarket in Canada and head for the spice racks.  On one side of the bag is the English name; then you flip the bag and you get the French name.  That's how I learned that romarin is rosemary and that origan is oregano.  When going through a recipe in French, I don't have to look at the dictionary and get the English equivalent, because I know it will be in the supermarket waiting for me.

Speaking of spices, I scooped up my spice box from the cupboard and laid them out so I can start a lexicon for you.  So starting with my spice collection at home, we have:



persil seché dried parsley
cardamome moulue ground cardamom
muscade nutmeg
clou de girofle cloves
poudre de cari curry powder
piment de cayenne cayenne pepper
thym thyme
cannelle moulue ground cinnamon
coriandre coriander
graine de pavot poppy seed
assaisonnement à volaille poultry seasoning
basilic basil

When buying fresh herbs, remove the strings or rubber bands as soon as you get home.  Spread them out and discard those that look limp, are yellowed or have black spots.  If there are roots, you'll want to trim them off.

One problem about buying fresh herbs like basil is you don't get to use all of them in one cooking session.  They can't be stored in the fridge indefinitely.  A kind lady told me - after she overheard me asking the supermarket manager about storing basil - to chop up the herbs and put portions in airtight plastic bags in the freezer.  That way you just take what you need for the next recipe.  They'll taste like you just plucked them out off the ground!

Another advice I read:  surround the herbs with olive oil or butter before storing them in the freezer.  I've never tried this method but the oil or butter will prevent the unpleasant taste.


We'll do more herbs and spices in my next blog. 
Trivia question:  what's a famous Japanese spice that in its fresh form will induce tears (like onions do when they're not refrigerated prior to chopping)?
Answer:  wasabi.  In German, it's called Japanischer kren; in French it's raifort du Japon and in Chinese it's called saan kwai.  If you want top quality wasabi, buy it in prepared and frozen paste form - sold by many Japanese specialty stores.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Uniquely Quebec, Part 3

I came to Montreal after spending eight years in the States.  I lived in Washington, DC working first for the Egyptian Embassy and later for the British Embassy.  While there, the desire to learn French never left me.  I took courses at the Alliance Française on Wyoming Avenue but after two years realized I wouldn't be able to speak it if I kept speaking in English.

I even joined a French choir that sang at  Sunday service in  Georgetown, but my vocabulary was stunted.  That was when I decided it was time to uproot and put an end to my happy Washington life.

Montreal was a shock.  It must have been because I came in November.  That was a bad decision.  Novembers in Montreal are bleak, and so are the first months of the year.  I may love the French language, but I loathe winters.  I still do.  quebec3

The French Canadians I met helped me take my mind off my misery;  a misery made more pronounced because I refused to dress adequately for the winter.  Bending over boots, putting on layers and covering up my ears were rituals I could not get used to.  But the more I closed my mind to winter, the more I opened my heart to French Canadians.  A lovable bunch of warm, fun-loving people, if you ask me.

They like to mind their own business, but they won't hesitate to get up close and personal if they sense the absence of a stiff, upper lip.  They're a delight to talk to; their homemade expressions reflect a spirit that is accommodating, curious, and loaded with humor.  

The way to a French Canadian's heart - I think - are to encourage them to practice their English with you while you throw about some Quebecisms here and there to surprise them.

So I'll wrap up these series on "French Canadiana."  If you ever find yourself in our part of the woods, use any of the expressions below for a cup of good measure!



Ne pas être dans son assiette (literally, not in his plate).  Not in a good mood
bébé lala acting like a child
Il a une grosse bédaine he's got a big tummy; he's obese
casque:  avoir du casque (a casque is a cap).  It means audacity, not embarrassed at all
débandé - être débandé to be disappointed, disillusioned
faire son frais to be pretentious, arrogant
c'est fort en ketchup! incredible! unbelievable!
manger de la marde to be in difficult times, in misery
plein comme un oeuf to have lots of money, to be very wealthy
c'est une pinotte (from the English "peanuts")  It's nothing, no big deal
smatte - être bien smatte smart, intelligent

My next series will be those in our cupboards that tease our taste buds.  Stay tuned!


Friday, June 19, 2009

Uniquely Quebec, Part 2

Let me tell you a story.  Fiction of course!

Emilie and Anne grew up together and have remained close friends.  They agree to meet for coffee.  Anne, knowing that Emilie is always late, sets the meeting time for 2:00 pm, knowing that Emilie will show up an hour late - that is, 3:00 pm.

Anne walks to the café slowly and arrives at 3:05 pm, hoping that Emilie would already be waiting.

No Emilie.  It's 3:30 pm and Anne's getting impatient.  At 3:40 pm, Emilie shows up, huffing and puffing and complaining that the metro got stuck a few times.  Anne says, "but you're one hour and 40 minutes late.  I've been waiting since 2:00 pm."  A white lie between friends never hurts.

Emilie hugs her friend.  I'm sorry, she says, j'étais dans la lune aujourd'hui, comme d'habitude.  Je ne sais pas pourquoi (I was in the clouds today, daydreaming as usual. I don't know why).

They order their espressos and the conversation gets animated.

Anne asks about Emilie's kid sister. Ah, Erica, pauvre elle.  Elle est maganée cette semaine, elle travail trop  (ah, poor Erica.  She's worn out this week, she works too hard)!

The café is known for its home made country bread.  Anne asks the waitress if there is any country bread left.  PantouteThe waitress said apologetically.

Emilie frowns, suddenly remembering that her tax returns are overdue.  Anne suggests she lets a tax preparer do it.  Emilie says her accountant does it for her every year but for some reason, this year, "il est dans les patates avec ses comptes et ses clients."  (He's got his accounts and clients all mixed up, he doesn't know what he's doing).

Dating anyone these days, Anne?  Emilie eyes her friend closely.  Anne nods her head and starts to giggle.  "Il est beau, mais il est habilé comme la chienne à Jacques!"  (He's handsome Emilie, but he dresses like Jacques' dog -  meaning he's got no fashion sense).

They both laugh.  It's Anne's turn to ask a personal question.  What about you, Emilie, still dating Mr. Gym?  Emilie's boyfriend works out in a gym 7 days a week.  She tells Anne that she's thinking of breaking up with him.

Anne is surprised.  She thought Mr. Gym and Emilie were made for each other.  Ah boff, je suis tannée.  Il a une faim de loup et mon frigo est toujours vide (shoot, I'm fed up.  He's got a huge appetite and my fridge is always empty.)

Hope you liked the conversation.  Which reminds me, it's summer time.  That means the cafes and terraces in Montreal will come alive and there'll be a lot of girlfriends and boyfriends mingling, sipping Sangrias and Quebec's famous ice wine, and...speaking the French they cherish!



Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Uniquely Quebec, Part 1

montreal 1

When I was studying translation, one book that I enjoyed reading was Deux Langues, Six Idiomes by Irène de Buisseret.  Ms. Buisseret was one person I would have loved to meet face-to-face but she committed suicide in Ottawa, after an enviable career as Chief Translator of the Supreme Court of Canada.  Her list of achievements was outstanding.  She was a lawyer in France before immigrating to Canada.  Her father was a Russian diplomat. 

Ms. Buisseret's Deux Langues, Six Idiomes was a valuable scholarly piece of work, although she didn't write it in stiff, textbook style.  I wouldn't call it a textbook because it was an absorbing literary gem - the kind of book one would curl up with and get lost in time.

The book's theme focused on the many ways that French is spoken and written in different countries.  It's a translator's reference; hence the "deux langues" (for Canada's two official languages - English and French), and  the "six idiomes" referred to the different idiomatic French expressions spoken in France, Quebec, Belgium and other countries.

To be familiar with regionalisms is an indispensable skill for translators.  At times, such regionalisms predominate in everyday language giving the impression that we in Quebec speak erratic (and erroneous) French. 

I'd be the first to challenge anyone who says that the French language as spoken and written here in Quebec is inferior to that of France.  We follow the same grammar and punctuation rules and the Quebec people may have an accent, but that doesn't mean we don't speak or write French correctly.  McGill University and the Université de Montréal produce excellent translators every year.  When people say "it isn't Parisian French", I have to chuckle.  Of course it isn't Parisian - that's stating the obvious.

If people make such snobbish statements, it reflects  ignorance - indeed a narrow-minded view - of regionalisms and the many other colorful expressions that mirror the unique and refreshing Quebec "esprit."

I won't use a table here because I'll be featuring a few expressions instead of single words.

  1. You're on a shopping spree.  You see a dress you like.  The price sends your head spinning, and you say:

quebec ex 1

2.  You bump into a friend you haven't seen a long time.  He's an active person, likes to get involved.  You wonder what he's been up to lately.  You ask:

FrenchSalut Jean-Claude.  Qu'est-ce que tu fais de bon?

EnglishHi Jean-Claude!  What have you been up to?  Or simply, what's up?

3.  Your friend lives in Montreal and discourages you from visiting her in November because of the cold.  She uses a slang word for "cold."

FrenchViens pas à Montréal ce novembre.  Il fait frette ici.

EnglishDon't come to Montreal in November.  It's cold here.

4.  You're a confirmed fan of chips.  Your friends describe you as someone who likes to snack a lot.

FrenchTu adores grignoter, heh?  Tu veux partager tes chips?

EnglishYou love to snack heh?  Would you like to share your chips?

5.  Your cousin has gone from one vocal audition to another without success.  You motivate him to persevere some more.

FrenchLâche-pas, mon cher cousin.  T'as beaucoup de talent!

EnglishHang in there, my dear cousin.  Don't give up.  You've got a lot of talent!

quebec 2

Stay tuned for Uniquely Quebec, Part 2!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Babies, Part 3

Toyland Here We Come!

The crib's been bought, the clothes folded neatly, and the milk bottles sanitized.  Time to shop some more, this time for toys - to keep the little one entertained.

Some common toys that make it to the nursery -



hochets rattles
poupée doll
maison de poupée doll house
animal en peluche stuffed animal
casse-tête puzzle
jeu de contruction building blocks
tapis de jeu play mat
trotte-bébé baby walker
cloches chimes

Reading various posts on Internet discussion forums regarding monthly expenses for the baby has been an eye-opener.  After crunching figures, even the parents themselves are shocked at how much they spend.  Expenses for toys and books and DVDs - NOT including clothes and food - range from $100.00 to $500.00 a month on the average. 

Parents say there's a need to cut back on toy dollars.  This desire to adjust the toy budget is more pronounced these days when the recession is still hovering about.  They believe cutting back is a logical move.  One reason is that the baby receives a fair number of gifts on special occasions.  A second reason is that the older children's toys are recycled and passed on to the baby.

Parents who wonder about the safety of toys can go to the US government site to find out about the latest recalls.  This list is regularly updated by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).  Browsing through the list, we learned the more common reasons for product recalls:

  • lead paint violation
  • possibility of choking
  • chemical burns
  • risk of fire and burn hazards
  • fall hazard
  • laceration hazard

Keep this URL on your favorites list in case.  It's a good idea to consult the government's recall list before you boogey over to the toy store:

This post ends our baby series.  I'll start a new theme next week - Quebecisms!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Babies, Part 2

Shopping for the Newborn

If diamonds are a girl's best friend, shopping is her second best friend, a morale booster, a well-deserved treat.  For some spending money is a stress-releaser, confirmation of that very female sentiment that, "I deserve it. I work hard for my money."

No one can take that away from anyone.  I had colleagues who made it a point to take an extra hour during lunch on pay day to roam the mall.  They say that the mere act of buying something reminds them that even an unfulfilling job  has its rewards.

baby4 When the baby arrives, the dynamics change somewhat.  A brand new mother still enjoys shopping, but this time she's thinking, "my baby deserves the best."  Spending for herself takes the back seat.

Shopping for the baby is now a lot more exciting and  quality makes it to the top of the list.  When it comes to their babies, they'll invest in quality before anything else. As the idea of motherhood takes hold, the purse strings know no limits.

Here are some baby items that mothers include on their shopping list.



alaise baby change pad
bavette (or: protège-épaule) baby burping cloth
porte bébé pour les hanches hip carrier
hamacs slings
poussette stroller
siège auto pour bébé baby car seat
fourre-tout tote bag
culottes d'entrainement training pants
sucette (or: tétine) pacifier
porte bébé extensible stretchy wrap

Elinor Goulding Smith and Marshall McLuhan had good insights about babies.  Here they are:

Elinor Goulding Smith:  "It sometimes happens, even in the best of families, that a baby is born. This is not necessarily cause for alarm. The important thing is to keep your wits about you and borrow some money."

Marshall McLuhan:  "Diaper backward spells repaid. Think about it."  baby5

According to Hampton's Diapers, an online company (, the modern child can go through almost 5,000 diaper changes;  some sources put that figure closer to 11,000.  So how many diapers go to landfills?  Hampton's Diapers says 21 billion annually!


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Babies, Part 1

baby collage In English we say, "throw out the baby with the bath water." It means we tend to get rid of also the good elements when solving a problem as a result of wanting to start with a clean slate.  The French have a very close equivalent. It's almost a literal translation of the English:  "jeter le bébé avec l'eau du bain." 

Some say it in reverse:  "jeter l'eau du bain avec le bébé."  It may take more research in French language discussion forums to find out which one is correct, but many French speakers agree that this expression is adopted from the English.  If that's the case, then the literal translation should hold.

I won't comment on whether or not we have the tendency to carry change too far.  Behaviorists and human resource specialists say that change is good.  Sometimes, people take that seriously and overdo it.

But bringing a baby into this world - now that's a wonderful change for most of us.  Even those who shunned parenthood for a long time experience a melt down when they first cradle that fragile infant.  innocence

I've collected a hodge- podge of words that relate to babies and I'll run this theme in three parts like I always do.  I hope you can add them to your French-English lexicon.

Note that's there's no logic to my choice of baby-related words - let's just go with the flow of the bath water shall we?



allaitement maternel breastfeeding
lait maternel mother's milk
colostrum colostrum (1)
lait de transition transitional milk (2)
bébé coliques colicky baby (3)

(1)  colostrum - a fluid high in nutrients which a woman produces naturally at the end of her pregnancy and during the early postpartum stage.

(2) transitional milk - this milk is produced by the mother in the first two weeks following the birth of her child.

(3) colicky baby - a baby with intense needs; these needs are expressed through frequent crying, demanding and fussy behavior, and nervousness when being fed.