Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Rose is a Rose is a Flower with Many Petals

Language, like love, is a many-splendored thing. Or splendoured, if you're British. Or sometimes, a splintered thing.

Every so often, I encounter a hole in the English language. This is not an uncommon or English-centric phenomenon, I'm sure. If it were, than expressions like, "c'est le timing" or "c'est flash" would not exist in French. Clearly, the English terms "timing" and "flash(y)" capture sense (the je-ne-sais-quoi, if you will) a tad more purely than their French analogues.

(adj./n.) - je-ne-sais-quoi.

A term we use in English to emphasize that we don't know what we're talking about, literally translating to: "I don't know what."

Example:

I don't know why I'm so attracted to him, Mom. He has good posture. His smile? Maybe. Definitely not his fanatic intimacy with Wagnerian opera. I don't know. . . there's a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about him I just can't resist.

Translation:

There's a certain I-don't-know-whatness about him.

Was language ever so bereft than in the moment illustrated above? Or is it that language, the actual exchange of signs and signifiers, benefits from this inter-lingual transposition? I tend believe the latter, even if je-ne-sais-quoi remains an overwhelmingly dumb example.

Now, saying anything in French seems to lend authority, élan (or is it panache?) and unbearable snoot to any conversation.
Which brings me to my main point of interest today--the phrase "l'homme de ma vie."

I first learned this phrase when I was living in France. A friend referred to her ex-husband as "l'homme de ma vie," by which she meant to communicate that in spite of their permanent estrangement, he was and would always be first in her heart. The romantic in me loved this gesture. The cynic in me assumed she was being melodramatic.

But then I saw the phrase in an article. And then I heard it on t.v. And on the street. Was it that this seeming overwrought phrase was common currency? Was it that the French really were over-sexed and hyper-romantic sops? Or was this phrase hitting on something else?

By the time I moved back to the States, I had come to the conclusion that this was one term commonly used to describe a romantic partner, with whom marriage may or may not be the tie that binds. In France, one spoke about living together, or having children together, with the man or woman of one's life. A copine or copain is just a copine or copain, but the "homme/femme de ma vie" is an entirely different thing.

What does this mean for English speakers? Well, it means that there is a phrase, ergo a recognition, of a type of relationship that we just don't have here in the good old U.S. of A. Or, apparently in British English, either. Here's a great look at the limits set by English when it comes to referring to the romantic being in one's life:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv62.shtml

S. and I have had this conversation over and over again. What do we call each other? I've taken to referring to him as my partner, which many have pointed out leads people to assume that I'm gay. I don't not enjoy that confusion. However, I chafe at the business-like aspect of it.

We both hate "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." I especially get a kick out of friends who introduce us as "dating," given that dating implies to me that two parties meet in a place for the purpose of getting to know each other, and that that place is not their shared home.

A few times I told people he's my roommate. That led to a funny situation with a woman who found S. to be particularly toothsome. While the confusion amused us, it was not kind to the third party, so I haven't used that since.

S. likes the Spanish monniker of "mujer." I hate the idea of being referred to as "woman," even if it's in another language. So I suggested "l'homme/la femme de ma vie." We both like it. But are we going to use it? In conversation?

Only at cocktail parties where that brand of je-ne-sais-quoi guarantees us a quick exit and zero future invites.

Anyone have any other ideas? This is becoming a bit of a quest.

3 comments:

Collins said...

welcome to my confounding world.

at least you all aren't intoducing yourselves to others as "my lover" ala SNL. there is always the oh-so-dry "life partner" but, that's just lame.

i like "homme/femme de ma vie". it fits you and your quirk.

mem said...

I forgot about "lover!" So funny.

A friend of mine told me about her colleague, a man in his sixties, who referred to his partner merely by her name.

"Louise and I..."

"Louise always tells me..."

etc.

When my friend finally asked him if Louise was his wife, he smugly replied: "Oh, we're not married. We're modern."

I thought that was pretty good.

kdh said...

I understand your dilemma quite thoroughly. Before becoming “fiancéd” I never found the right word to replace “boyfriend” either... I would often say “my fellow” with a facial expression or intonation to suggest my strong and enduring fondness for him... But apart from that I have no suggestions. And facial expressions don’t really work on paper. So I took a quick browse of thesaurus.com. They offer: beau, buck, coxcomb, cupidon, dandy, flame, steady, sweetheart, truelove, flame...

Eegads!?! for the most part. But maybe some of those could fit some moments?