One fishy tale of becoming a Mister

One fishy tale of becoming a Mister

I got into a tangle last week referring to the Italian immigrant restaurateur Caesar Cardini as Senor when of course it should have been Signore. Apologies to all. I should have known better than to start dabbling with foreign honourifics. I have enough problems dealing with Mr, Mrs and Ms.

In my early years I recall being puzzled by receiving birthday cards from relatives addressed to "Master Roger" even though no one ever actually called me Master. Which brings us to Mr or Mister, an important word in the English language which all males have to accommodate.

I remember being about 17 and strolling alongside the Kennet and Avon canal in Reading when a young lad holding a fishing rod approached and asked "Hey mister, can you help me?" He had caught a small fish but could not extract the hook from its mouth. I clumsily fiddled about and eventually freed the fish and tossed it back into the canal.

The reason I remember this otherwise mundane moment is nothing to do with the poor fish, or the canal, but because it was the first time anyone had called me "Mister". That meant I was perceived by youngsters as an adult, which was quite scary. No longer could I get away with being a cheeky child or misguided youth. I had become a "Mister".

So in an oblique sort of way my childhood ended in that brief exchange on the canal towpath.

Pioneer of 'Franglais'

The topic of honourifics brings back memories of a talented English music hall comedian in the 1950s whose stage name was ''Monsewer'' Eddie Gray, inspired by his visits to France and his apparent struggles with pronouncing the word "monsieur".

A former member of the Crazy Gang and a highly accomplished juggler, "Monsewer Gray" developed his show into more of a comedy act in similar fashion to Tommy Cooper with his magic tricks. He appeared in a top hat, spectacles without lenses, a daft droopy moustache and a big red nose.

After struggling to make himself understood while performing in France ''Monsewer'' Gray created a Cockney-French theme for his act as in "Je got 'ere un packet de cards…" This early form of "Franglais" sparked much mirth amongst English audiences. If heckled he sometimes responded with "voulez vous obliger moi and shut up. Merci beaucoup."

Incidentally, there's a lovely short sketch of him on YouTube with a performing dog that… well, doesn't perform.

Pardon my French

Someone who I suspect was influenced by 'Monsewer Gray' was former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman who in 1981 released his own single (Si Si) Je Suis un Rock Star. It's not a bad tune either with Wyman sounding very much like Ian Dury and it reached No 14 in the UK charts and was also a big hit in Australia and New Zealand. As the title suggests, its lyrics include a generous sprinkling of Cockney-French with Wyman informing us "Je avais un residence/Je habite la/a la south of France."

Michelle, ma belle

One of the first modern English pop songs in which French played a significant role in its appeal was the Beatles' Michelle from their 1965 Rubber Soul album. It is always a delight listening to Paul McCartney singing "Michelle ma belle, sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble." He does a pretty good job considering he admitted his French was not that great. When it first came out it had us all scrambling for the French dictionaries.

Little did McCartney know at that time, but 45 years later in 2010 he would be singing that same song at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama who appeared to love it, singing along from her front-row seat.

Bewitching boutiques

The French language became quite fashionable in England in the 1960s. It was the time when traditional tailors suddenly transformed into " boutiques". The French word made these outfitters seem more sophisticated to uncultured English ears. The boutiques were certainly more fancy with even fancier prices.

In addition to all the psychedelic colours the boutiques featured flares, bell bottoms, hipsters, love beads and even Afghan coats. They became so trendy that a few even surfaced in my home town which was only just moving out of the Dark Ages.

These days of course just about anything can be a called a boutique. Thus we have pet boutiques for dogs, cats and hamsters… but probably not ferrets. In addition there are boutique airlines, hotels, banks and even law firms. I wouldn't mind betting there is even a boutique laundromat somewhere.

That is not bad for a word that in French simply means "shop".

Matter of taste

It is estimated that up to 30% of words used in the English language are derived from the French, meaning that English people regularly use thousands of French words without realising it.

English restaurants have long decorated their menus with French words in a bid to make their food sound more appealing.

That's why we are familiar with "hors d'oeuvres", "au gratin" "oeufs" and "crepes." Admittedly "Poisson Frites" sounds more classy than fish and chips while "petit pois'' is much more enticing than just plain peas. And "Les coquilles Saint-Jacques" certainly beats scallops.

Hopefully the days are long gone when English people thought "a la carte'' was something served off the trolley.

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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