Thinking outside the box
Lisanne Gamelin
9 December 2020

Last summer, while working for a financial institution in their call centre for small business owners, I had a not so unusual encounter with a dissatisfied customer. On any given day, I can speak to at least a dozen different people throughout the province, people from all walks of life, mostly French-speaking. That day, this person yelled at me for using the English phrase “think outside the box.”

One might want to blame the pandemic for this outburst, but I have witnessed this before. As a bilingual francophone, I tend to adopt specific expressions in either language as a default setting and cannot always come up on the spot with its equivalent in the other language. That day, I suppose I put my foot in my mouth—or, as we are supposed to say in French, I put my feet in the plates

My second mistake after using this anglicisme was that I did not apologize for it. I should have said “Excuse my English” or “…as they’d say in English.” A simple apology can go far when you can’t come up with a good French equivalent on the spot. Besides, getting into an argument with a client over a linguistic faux pas can turn into a heated debate, and I’d rather clock out on time. I tend to avoid the fuss and learn my lesson so that next time I won’t irritate this type of interlocutor.

Because, yes, there are two types of French speakers when it comes to the use of anglicismes, and I can usually figure out who’s who based on their accent. The encounter I’ve just described is the type channelling Denise Bombardier. They would see me, a French speaker who writes in English, as proof that the “oppressors” are winning.

The second type of French-speakers are those with a more pronounced regional Quebecer accent. They generally don’t mind anglicisms as much. In fact, they tend to use quite a few of them themselves.

“Non, mais, faut se watcher, si tu veux pas perdre ton cash down.”

“Ça prend du guts, mais faut être willing.”

When I’m on the phone at work, I wait until they’ve used them first before I allow myself to join in. Since I’m a verbal chameleon, a code switcher, I can turn my “International French” on and off on demand. If I don’t, if I maintain a strictly “pure” French, I run the chance of alienating a segment of Quebecers and miss out on connecting with them and eventually, yes, losing a sale.

Which takes me to the case of “Take out” versus “Plat pour emporter.” Suddenly, both the local media and the provincial political sphere are arguing for its suppression, initiating a public debate about a formerly anodyne expression and escalating a storm in a teacup.

Why “take out” and why now?

It doesn’t make sense or, to use French syntax, it doesn’t have sense. But it rarely does.

We already know that our collective abandoning of that expression will rely on another bout of generalized self-shaming. The recent influx of expats from France doesn’t help. On the one hand they make snarky remarks about our accent, on the other they use their fair share of English words and ridicule our attempts to remain integral to our mother tongue. But is “shopping” so much better than magasinage? And why is “mail” with a Parisian accent more acceptable than our own invention, courriel?

These linguistic debates always go back to the québécois inferiority complex regarding our accent and our regionalisms. It’s a perpetual fencing match as to who is using the least English or speaking the best French.

When I think back to that customer who was furious when I didn’t pivot to a quick translation for “thinking outside the box,” I was struck by what they said: “On est au Québec icitte, tabarnak.”

Not exactly proper French. A fun translation of this tantrum could be dubbed with a Bostonian accent: “You think you’re better than me?”

Like other bilingual (or multilingual) individuals, I get put on a linguistic pedestal, especially by employers. But if I show off my linguistic abilities, I am unceremoniously yanked down. I go from being an assimilée to being uppity for using an anglicisme with one person and its true French equivalent with another. Too agile for my own good.

In the end, “take out” will not be the last English expression to get chopped, and for sure it will linger in private conversations.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the day we’ll finally have a public debate discussion about “beurre de peanut.” But I doubt it’ll get us to make peace with our former collective Catholic belief that we’re only born for a small piece of bread. That’s né pour un petit pain for my bilingual code-switching friends.

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Born in rural Quebec in a French-speaking household, Lisanne Gamelin spent most of her twenties traveling, bouncing from one job to another. With a few publications under her belt, she is still looking for a home for her first novel inspired by her time in Louisiana.


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