Your mother was an autistic hamster

by Translation Guy on November 11, 2009

Pierre Lellouche, the French Minister for Europe has caused a contretemps in Anglo-French relations when he was quoted on remarks critical of “Euroskeptic” Tories in the Guardian, a leading British newspaper.

“They have one line, and they just repeat one line,” Mr. Lellouche was quoted as saying of Conservative policy. “It is a very bizarre sense of autism.

“It’s pathetic. It’s just very sad to see Britain, so important in Europe, just cutting itself out from the rest and disappearing from the radar map,” he said. Convervative policies had “castrated” Britain in the EU, he said.

Needless to say, such thoughtful observations did not go over so well among the British, especially among those representing British autistics and the ink has flowed viciously in the British press, and the French government backpeddling furiously and Lellouche apologizing contritelyy.

As usual, it was first blamed on bad translation, but since no translators were involved, it was then described as an off-the-record conversation, which the Guardian denies. As Nicholas Watt, the reporter who conducted the interview, blogged last Friday, “That is all a standard rowback by a politician embarrassed when their true thoughts appear in print.”

But despite Lellouch’s perfect understanding of English, those choice adjectives didn’t quite make the jump into English.  Watt argues in his blog that Lellouch knew exactly what he was saying.  Well yes and no. English speaking students of French soon become aware of the false friends between two languages separated by foggy channel of misunderstanding. Commenter martinirosso nailed it:

The writer is clearly not a linguist (in the trues sense of the word, rather than referring to a person who speaks other languages). If he were, he would know that native-like pronunciation and fluency have little to do with lexical accuracy or awareness of pragmatic effect. ‘Pathetique’ is a false cognate between English and the romance languages, as are ‘sympathetic’, ‘miserable’, ‘primitive’ and many other words. There are many highly proficient French speakers of English who use these words inaccurately in a pragmatic sense and who regularly make grammatical errors like ‘when I have been a student in London’ instead of ‘when I was a student in London’. L1 interference will always affect the most fluent of non–native speakers of any language. Journalists as a class tend not to notice this though. Perhaps I am using ‘class’ in a non-prototypical way here. And anyway, listen to anyone under 30 and you’ll notice that ‘sad’ actually means ‘pathetic’ – as in ‘you’re really sad’.

A good case for the first rule of speakers of a second language when delivering an insult. Do it in your first language.

Now you may ask, what does this have to do with hamsters? Anglo-French vociferosity goes way, way back:


  1. John M. says:

    Ah don’ wanna talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food-trough wiper! Ah fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!

  2. Senior Cit says:

    Hilarious French insults!

  3. 12345... says:

    “And suddenly, the animator had a fatal heart attack”

  4. Have to agree, the French mocking is awesome… “What are you doing in england?” “Mind your own buisness!”

  5. FreakyGeek says:

    Decided to upload something before it was too late. I got the idea from watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In one scene, a French man starts taunting King Arthur, and one of those taunts was that hamster bit. Picture didn’t turn out so good thanks to my crappy drawing skills and my scanner, which always seems to screw up the colors. Oh well. Enjoy!

    • Ken says:

      LOL, FreakyGeek. As a pokemon fan, I got to say, you nailed it. I’m showing it around the office. Thanks!

  6. Latecomer says:

    Arent there two scenes?

  7. BonnieClyde says:

    haha i loove monty python n da quest for tha holy grail and the french taunting

  8. Zeddy says:

    Great movie, STOP RIPPING IT!!! Dont be lazy, man! Submit something original…

  9. Love the british comedies of old. Like ‘Are you being Served’ or whatever, can’t remember the name. It’s about the sales people working the floor of a clothing store, pretty good stuff without all the 4 letter words of today’s comedy.

  10. Toby says:

    French people are funny.

  11. Americano says:

    Americans despise the French, no? Freedom fries anyone?

  12. FreakyGeek says:

    Glad you liked it Ken :)

  13. Americano says:

    Yep, cool pic Freaky

  14. Choochoo says:

    The bestest movie ever!

  15. Animals have always played a major, if not definitive, role in insults. French uses chameau (camel) and vache (cow) for unpleasant or stupid individuals while the donkey or mule is used in other languages.

  16. 432... says:

    Vache (cow) is also used for the police (similar to pigs in English).

  17. onsy says:

    While many languages contain insults to various family members, the most offensive by far is the insult to one’s mother. No language would be complete with the supreme insult to a person by insulting the memory of the person’s mother.

  18. Cowboy fever says:

    whatever the insult, be it animal or family member, a language speaker, and most particulary a speaker who is speaking the language as a foreign or second language, must remember that temperance and respect are essential.

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