Horrible French word of the day

Today I had a first lesson with a whole Y11 French group working up to speaking tests on jobs and future plans, on the theme of “a job I would like to do and why.” Helpfully, I had just seen a similar lesson being delivered in German and was able to draw on the style of presentation quite a lot even if I had to generate the content myself.

Towards the end we moved onto free writing to produce individual sentences and paragraphs as I circulated to help, encourage and keep people on task. One student wanted some vocab as he wanted to talk about becoming a professional rugby player.

Now in these free vocab sessions when I am not in possession of a dictionary things often float into my head that I am not able to check, and I find myself hugely doubting what I say. I first came up with “joueur de rugby” – then the first wave of doubts. When we are talking about free time / sports / music, we learn that it is jouer à (for a sport) and jouer de (for a musical instrument). So should it be joueur à rugby? Grief no, that sounds horrible.

And then my subconscious threw “le rugbyman” at me so I offered it to the student. And the more I said it out loud and showed him how to spell it, the more I thought it couldn’t possibly be correct. Even if it were, would the people marking his speaking test think it was good enough French for an exam? It certainly has the ring of the sort of word of which the Académie Française would not approve. So I backtracked and sent him back to joueur de rugby.

But after the lesson, I checked it with a quick Google. We spend quite a lot of time telling students not to use Google Translate because they don’t have the skill to use it safely, and what they bung through it comes out as garbage. But for an experienced linguist you can use the internet to supplement your knowledge. And I found there were quite a lot of French speakers on the internet using “le rugbyman” as a real word. Why on earth is that even in my head?

Recently I had a debate with a colleague about preparing for lessons. She asked who, these days, sat down with a big dictionary? Everyone just uses the internet now, Wordreference, or Reverso. I’ve also been challenging myself to use Duden for German, although sometimes it’s easier just to get a word translated rather than try to understand the German definition of a German word.

For most of this year’s teaching placements, I have been using online dictionaries, but when my internet got unreliable recently I pulled down the dusty big dictionaries that got me through my degree. And I have been really enjoying using them again. One of the fab things about them is the accidental and continual exposure to new and interesting vocab through the key words and the words surrounding the one you’re actually looking for. So the other week, I found Wetterfrosch, for example, with no translation but an italicised explanation “frog used to predict the weather” (eh!?)

I’ve just thought to try to old big dictionary to see if rugbyman is in it. My Collins Robert troisième édition was published in 1993, and surely the horrible false Anglicism has come into the French language since then? So I flick through (ooh, that’s interesting the dictionary has RSS in it… oh, hang on, it stands for république socialiste soviet) and… there it is. Le rugbyman. Plural, les rugbymen. Don’t it go to show, you never know?

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