We have a ripe example of the linguistic minefield between France and Britain today. A French minister [Claude Lellouche, French minister in charge of Europe] has caused offence in Britain by calling the Conservative Party autistic.
[But] words often carry quite different tones on opposite sides of the Channel.
In France in recent years, autism has become a standard term in the political-media vocabulary. It does not shock. Handicap organisations complain about it, but the word has become a routine put-down for someone who seems determined not to listen to your point of view. Trade union leaders use it against the government. Teenagers use it in school yards. In Britain, of course, it is an outrage to use a metaphor that is akin to the old insult spastic.
He used other strong language, saying the plans of David Cameron, the Conservative leader, were 'pathetic' and would 'castrate' Britain in Europe. "They have essentially castrated your UK influence in the European parliament," he said.
Lellouche does not seem to be very sensitive to the strong overtones of these words in English.
Saying that someone's power has been émasculé in French is not as strong as saying that he has been castrated in English. Lellouche has been saying on the radio that he meant pathetic in the French sense of pathéthique -- meaning sad, like Tchaikovsky's symphony. The English sense is lamentable in French. He also said that he had no idea that autistic was offensive in English.
These are among dozens of terms -- like miserable and misérable (destitute in English), seduction and la séduction (the act of charming or winning over) or ...politician versus politicien, which refers to petty politcking. A politician in French is un homme or une femme politique.
The word autistic has stung most in Britain because sensitivity over the condition has put its metaphoric use beyond the pale.
France is less sensitive over using human iimpairment and physique in invective. Crétin is a more acceptable insult in French than English. Things are however changing. An association called Autisme France has been campaigning in recent years to have the media and politicians stop wielding the condition as an insult. "In colloquial French this designates someone in a bit of a bubble, who is a little dreamy," the association said recently.
The threshold of offensiveness is always moving. It is still acceptable in both languages to 'turn a deaf ear' or be 'blind' to something. The British call people dumb now in the American sense of stupid (which came via German). In French it remains acceptable to allude to bodily functions that are unmentionable in English. A senior radio commentator last night dismissed President Chirac's new memoirs as "chiantissime". That would politely be rendered as ultra-boring, but literally and crudely, it means that it provokes extreme excretion. And then there is the matter of race. Anything remotely ethnic cannot be used metaphorically in English. France is not quite there yet. The French for speech-writer or ghost-writer is still un nègre -- a negro.