French Clichés

Once a week, I meet for coffee with Nathalie, a French friend who is hoping to improve her English, as I am hoping to improve my French, and we spend a couple of hours talking in a mix of both languages about whatever is happening in our lives. Unsurprisingly, in the course of conversation the subject of language itself often arises.

Last week as Nathalie, who is a teacher, was telling me about an assembly held at her school to memorialize Nelson Mandela, she commented that the event had been very good for countering the students’ clichés. What exactly, I asked, did she mean by this word? As I attempt to improve my French beyond the ability to order bread from the boulangère, I am particularly fascinated by the subtle differences in meaning between the way that certain French words are used in English and the way they’re used in French.

Take for example the word gauche. In American English, a person who is gauche lacks taste. This is a word that might be used to criticize someone with poor table manners. To be gauche connotes social awkwardness, a meaning strengthened, I think, by the very Frenchness of the word, and France’s cultural associations with good taste. In other words, it shows the speaker’s good taste to use a French word to criticize those with bad taste. However, in French gauche, which means left, does not carry connotations of tastelessness but only of clumsiness. To be gauche is to be maladroit, because – on a physical level – we live in a world built for right-handed people. I’ve been told that in British English, gauche conveys the same meaning that it does in French, and lacks the American sense of tastelessness. I would be curious to hear from any Anglophone readers in other parts of the world what the word means to you.

LOLCats gaucherie

Back to cliché, I could sense that Nathalie’s usage differed slightly from my own. I use the word most often to describe overused expressions or images. It’s a word that professors frequently scribble in the margins of student essays. It is cliché to “follow the path of least resistance” and rely on “tried and true” expressions, instead of trying to “think outside the box” and write something original. In French, however, a cliché refers most often to a stereotype – quite literally, as in a printing plate used to reproduce images, or figuratively, as in a stereotype of a national group, for example: the French all wear berets. It was in the latter sense that Nathalie used the word, to say that the memorial service for Mandela helped open her students’ eyes to the way they make judgments about others. To describe bad writing, on the other hand, she would use the word banalité.

I was reminded of our conversation when I attended a reading last night at the American Library in Paris by author Piu Eatwell from her new book They Eat Horses, Don’t They? on the subject of clichés about the French. Eatwell opened by reading a chapter on the most well-known stereotype of the Frenchman: the Onion Johnny.

If you are an American, or rather if you are not English, you might be scratching your head and asking who? That was the reaction of most of the Americans in the audience last night. Eatwell, who was born in Calcutta but grew up in the U.K. and has been living in France for the past decade, described the Onion Johnny as the familiar image of a Frenchman wearing a beret, striped shirt, and a garland of onions. The stereotype was only familiar to me because our dog-sitter in Canada, who is British, had dressed our dog as an Onion Johnny for Halloween and sent us the photos.

Pepper dressed as Onion Johnny, Halloween 2013
Pepper/Poivre dressed as an Onion Johnny, Halloween 2013

When I first saw the picture of Pepper, I understood the beret and striped shirt references, but was somewhat baffled by the onions. Eatwell’s talk last night cleared up my confusion. The passage she read explained that so-called “Onion Johnnies” were well-known figures in the U.K. during the first half of the twentieth century. They were Breton farmers who crossed the channel each fall with their onion crops and then traveled door-to-door by bicycle selling their stock.

True Onion Johnnies. Not wearing striped shirts, but they've got berets.
True Onion Johnnies. Not wearing striped shirts, but they’ve got berets.

Onion Johnnies declined in number during World War II, but apparently they still hold a special place in the British imagination. (And there is a museum dedicated to their memory in Brittany.) Eatwell used the story of the Onion Johnny to illustrate how silly “our” stereotypes of the French can be: the Bretons didn’t speak French but a Celtic dialect that they shared with Celts in the British Isles. Many Breton farmers considered the French to be offensive colonizers. The Johnnies’ distinctive striped shirts, designed to be worn by Breton mariners so they would be highly visible if swept overboard, had long symbolized outsider status (prisoners wore stripes) until Coco Chanel made the look cool in the 1920s. Far from stereotypical Frenchmen, the Breton Onion Johnnies were indeed antagonistic to the society they have come to personify in the British imagination.

French Sailors in Breton Stripes
French Sailors in Breton Stripes

Coco Chanel in Breton stripes
Coco Chanel in Breton stripes

It’s an amusing story, but it lost some of its punch from the fact that Eatwell’s audience didn’t share the stereotype she was attempting to burst. I can sympathize with her dilemma. I’ve had similar difficulties teaching American history to my Canadian students. For example, it’s hard to amaze them with the fact that Squanto probably spoke English when they’ve never heard of Squanto in the first place.

After the reading, as discussion turned to the nature of British and American stereotypes about France, I was struck by how many contemporary clichés center around consumption. French women always dress up; the French eat horse/snails/garlic/stinky cheese; the French don’t work hard but spend all their time in cafés smoking cigarettes.

These associations stand in sharp contrast to Anglo-American stereotypes about the French in previous centuries. As Linda Colley argues in her influential history Britons, British identity developed in the crucible of a long series of wars versus France. During the eighteenth-century, Anglo-American stereotypes of the French focused on the enemies’ supposed bloodthirstiness, their tyrannical Catholicism, and their deprivations from rural poverty. Later, after the French Revolution, Anglo-Americans often characterized the French as bloodthirsty “Jacobins” who threatened world order and morality with false promises of universal revolution. (This fear was the subject of my first book, The Reign of Terror in America.)

"Un Petit Souper à la Parisienne" - James Gillray print of Jacobin cannibal supper
“Un Petit Souper à la Parisienne” – James Gillray print of Jacobin family eating a cannibal supper (1792)

How did the stereotypical Frenchman transform from Robespierre to Onion Johnny, from cannibal to cook? Curiously, I suspect that the French Revolution played an important role in this change, by accelerating the development of a new restaurant culture in Paris. Restaurants had their antecedents before the French Revolution, but they became most associated with Paris in the decades that followed. At some point in the nineteenth century, following the defeat of Napoleon, when Anglo-American tourists returned to France, they began to see the country – and Paris in particular – as a place to consume fine meals and fashionable clothes, rather than the blood of kings and queens.

In fact, I wonder whether the cultivation of a new cliché about France as a nation of gourmands did not simply provide an alternative to the old cliché of bloodthirsty Frenchmen, but play an instrumental role in the erasure of that older image from popular memory. As stereotypes, gourmandise and cannibalism are almost “diametrically opposed,” to use a popular cliché. It gives one “food for thought.”

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

3 thoughts

  1. Language is endlessly fascinating. And I love the Onion Johnnies explanation. We actually saw some French onion vendors so dressed at a food festival in Wales this fall. Now it makes total sense.

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