Between Us French

In the midst of the seriousness of the results of the election, a drama comparable only in excitement to watching paint dry, I thought it might be fun to take a little detour into the world of Bush and language. But not just any language. Freedom, er, French!

There’s a quote that’s been floating around the Internet, a comment attributed to George W. Bush in a conversation with Tony Blair. According to Bush, the story goes, the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneurship. Any educated person with even the slightest knowledge of language immediately lapses into giggles over this story. “No French word for ‘entrepreneur’? It’s a French word, you dolt!” is the typical response.

Now, I’m a Canadian. I went to a private Catholic school in BC where, despite no native French-speaking population, we started learning French in kindergarten. It’s safe to say that I can speak a smidge of French. And when I started thinking about this quote, I got curious: does entrepreneur mean the same thing in French as I think it does? Part of this line of thinking was prompted by Ashley‘s comments on how one of the French guys at work insisted that he was an entrepreneur. According to him, in France, anyone who has been to university and works in a company qualifies to be called an entrepreneur.

Just what does “entrepreneur” mean in French?

In my mind, I rewound back to high school French class. “Entre”, I recalled, means “between”. But I was damned if “preneur” meant anything. A quick trip to my French-English dictionary revealed:

preneur: nm (acheteur) buyer; (locataire) lessee, taker, tenant.

Entrepreneur = “between buyer”? A go-between? I suppose that was an accurate description, at a rudimentary level, but it lacked the flair we associate with the word in English. Perhaps the combined word in French packed a little more punch. A quick flip through the dictionary revealed:

entrepreneur: nm contractor. ~ (en bâtiment) building contractor; ~ de transports haulage contractor (Brit) trucker (US); ~ de peinture painter (and decorator); ~ de pompes funèbres undertaker (Brit), funeral director (Brit), mortician (US).

That’s an entrepreneur? A contractor? A guy who hammers up drywall? It hardly conjures up the image of glamour that is associated with the word in English. On a whim, I checked the French-English translation of entrepreneur (i.e.: translating from the “English” version of “entrepreneur” to the “French” version). I know, it seems silly – after all, they should be the same, right?

entrepreneur: n entrepreneur m (chef d’enterprise).

Entrepreneur means…entrepreneur in French. Whoppee, no big surprise there. Except, the alternate meaning is “head of an enterprise”. So the translation from the “English” version of entrepreneur to “French” actually carried an additional meaning – someone in charge of a business, not merely a contractor.

I reeled at this revelation: could it be that in a moment of unrecognized lucidity, George W. Bush had uttered an insightful comment on the difference between the French and Americans? That the French, despite being the source of the original word, actually had no single word to convey the meaning that the word entrepreneur had gained in English? That entrepreneur in English no longer meant the same thing as it did in French?

My world views shaken, I numbly returned to watch the conclusion of the wall-to-wall election coverage, afraid for a future that could include a President George W. Bush who might not actually be a complete moron.