Okay, here’s a funny story about the uncertainties of language, which I actually blogged about once before, years ago. At the time, I had just sold an article titled “I Love You, My Little Cabbage: Using Foreign Words in Your Fiction.” In it, I listed six ways to put a foreign flair in the mouths of your characters when you’re writing a story that takes place in another country. I began the article with an anecdote from my childhood:
When I was a child, my French-Canadian mother called me her little chou (pronounced “shoe”). In the summers, when we visited our French-speaking family in Quebec, my cousins were called chou or chou-chou by their mothers, as well. One summer evening, though, my aunt used the word chou as she was enticing us with the menu for that evening’s dinner. I understood that haricots verts were green beans and pommes de terre were potatoes, but chou? Which food was her darling? I turned to my mother, who smiled wryly. “The cabbage,” she replied. “Chou means ‘cabbage.'” All that time, I had been my mother’s little cabbage.
The anecdote is true. And all my life, the French term of endearment chou has been a source of merriment in my family. Why on earth would you call a loved one a cabbage? When my sister and I would challenge her on this strange expression, my mother would answer, “Well, in English you call each other ‘pumpkin.’ A pumpkin is a gourd. Why would you call someone a gourd?” And we found it hard to argue with that. We chalked it up to cultural difference and filed it under “amusing quirks in our family’s languages.”
The day after my article appeared online, I received an email from a writer in Italy. She said kind things about the article, but she wondered about my translation of chou. She said that she had always understood that the term of endearment referred to chou—meaning “pastry”—not chou meaning “cabbage.”
Hm…interesting. I wrote back and told her that while I knew the word for pastry, I had never connected it to the term for a loved one, because of what my mother had told us. I related to her the pumpkin conversation that my sister and I had had with Mom. I agreed, though, that “pastry” made more sense than “cabbage,” and I promised to do a little digging.
The next day I explained the chain of events to my mother and told her that I was intrigued that this other writer had been told that the word was chou-pastry and not chou-cabbage. Mom smiled–the exact same wry smile I saw all those years ago in her sister-in-law’s kitchen—and said, “Well, it IS the chou that means pastry. It’s like calling someone ‘honey.'”
“Mom!” I exclaimed. “Are you kidding? The word is chou-pastry, not chou-cabbage?”
“Well, yes. We say it’s chou-cabbage to tease the children.”
“Mom!” I couldn’t believe it. “All these years, I’ve had it wrong because you were ‘teasing the children'”??
“You know,” she mused, “I think a lot of French Canadians might not know which chou it is. Because we tell them it’s cabbage when they’re children. They might never find out.” She smiled again. “That’s funny,” she concluded.
“MOM! I wrote an article about it! It’s on the internet! And now European writers are challenging my translation–and they’re right!”
She laughed. “Oh, Cora. You’re so funny.”
Now, as a postscript to this little story, I googled the phrase “I love you, my little cabbage” so that I could quickly grab the opening paragraph of my article to insert into this post. And while the article came up right away, what also came up were a bunch of sites that included the phrase “my little cabbage.” Fascinated, I took a look at a bunch of them, and found that apparently there is widespread disagreement about which chou is actually implied in “mon petit chou.” Some folks say cabbage, some say pastry. So maybe Mom is right. Maybe it should be pastry—but maybe so many parents have teased so many children that we’re all convinced we’ve been called little cabbages all our lives.
Oh, well. I’m just going to go on saying it in French, and not worrying about the English translation. Pastry or cabbage, in my family it still means I love you.