Dec 16, 2013

Masculine Vaginas: Caprice des Dieux


If you've ever tried to learn French, you know that words can be feminine -- la / une -- or masculine -- le / un. To an English speaker, this is often unnatural. I have a hard time referring to a baby girl as "le bébé" or to my husband Anthony as "une adulte" or "une personne".

But there are some words that surpass the ridiculous and enter into the sublime:

le féminin = feminine. The word means "feminine", but it is a masculine word.
le sein = breast (used only for female breasts, as opposed to la poitrine, which is a feminine word meaning "chest" used for both men and women's chests)
la bitte = slang word for penis
la moustache = mustache

And the grand winner:
le vagin = vagina. It's a masculine word. Now, tell me the logic in that.

As you try to navigate your way through the le and la, there are, of course, some rules. The first one most foreigners learn is that often if a word ends in "e" it is feminine, and masculine for any other letter. Then, of course, there are the exceptions. In this case, there are so many exceptions that if you have to guess based on this rule, your chances return to about 50/50. I decide to take a test of word genders in the BLED (educational grammar book) for 4th graders (CM1) that is lying around at my friend's house. Christine is a 5th grade teacher, elementary school director, and grammar nut, and she grades my results. Despite knowing the meaning of nearly all of the words and speaking excellent French, my results are about 50% -- literally what you would expect if I just guessed blindly. (And my bilingual children? This is one of the few things that can trip them up; they probably get it right 80% of the time...)

For example, words that end in "age" are an exception to the "e" rule, as they are generally masculine:
un âge = an age, era
le visage = face
le garage = parking
le fromage = cheese

Then, naturally, there are the exceptions to the exceptions. Off the top of my head:
la plage = beach
la page = page
la cage = cage

Words ending in "tion" are almot universally feminine. I'm sure there's an exception somewhere, but always guess "la" when you see this. As you can see, many of our English words share their roots:

la révolution = revolution
une exception = an exception
la natation = swimming
la nation = nation
la réputation = reputation

There is not much rhyme or reason.

Is furniture feminine?
la chaise = chair
la table = table

But no...
un armoire = an armoire
un canapé = a couch
un fauteuil = an armchair

Even worse, words that appear to be the same gender don't have to be:
la table = table
le sable = sand

le bain = bath
la main = hand

une part = portion
un art = an art, skill

le pin = pine
la fin = the end

Even worse than even worse is that sometimes the same word can be both le or la, but that changes the meaning either slightly...:
la trompette = trumpet
le trompette = trumpet player, whether male or female

...Or completely:
la part = portion
le part = birth

la vase = mud at the bottom of a pond
le vase = a flower vase, a receptacle for flowers

In a cruel twist of fate, the French do not agree with us in the one area where English speakers actually assign gender to nouns: vehicles. Any ship in English is called a "she", but in French:
le bateau = boat
le yacht = yacht

This means you must say things like, "Hey! Look at that ship! He's a real beauty...."
And yet:
la voiture = car

I'm currently working on a translation of a book that talks about Kings Louis XIV. Unfortunately for me, the word "majesté" is feminine, and so when they have been speaking of him as "sa majesté" (we would say "his majesty") they then have to make the sentence agree by also referring to him as "elle", which simply means "she". [Insert image of my brain exploding here.]

Do French people have trouble with this? Not at all. I am frequently corrected by Pippa's 8-year old friends and even by their 4-year old little brothers. And they're right. Always. I don't even question them. They learn their vocabulary with the gender so integrated, they know it without hesitation. It only sounds natural (to them) one way.

And then, there are the exceptions to that. Bien sur. Every once in a very rare while, a word will come up that gives even a native French speaker pause. In the exam my friend Christine administers to me, I guess "le" for "oasis" and Christine has to mutter it to herself a few times, then even look it up to confirm, that it is indeed "la". But my really big moment comes when we are discussing this subject with Christine and her mother, who is a recently-retired elementary school teacher and director, and still-active grammar nut. I guess "le" for "apres-midi" (afternoon), using the logic that "midi" (noon) is masculine. They both proclaim it "la" and we think the subject is closed, until Christine's husband Lc mentions that it is written "cet apres-midi" (masculine for "this afternoon") instead of "cette apres-midi". When we look it up in the dictionary, it turns that l'Académie française -- official guardian of the French language -- agrees that I am correct. Let me restate that: I AM CORRECT.

That's one right for me, ten thousand for the native French speakers.

THE CHEESE: Caprice des Dieux

Look, I am not such a snob that I can't admit to liking an industrial cheese, and I like this one. It's made of pasteurized cow milk enriched with cream, so how bad could it be? The cheese is only aged two weeks, but you would think it was longer from the super-thick white mold crust. Yes, the crust is still edible, and while it's not quite as chalky as it looks, it is rather dry. Perhaps the outside needs to be this substantial in order to contain the inside: When warmed up, it gets nice and runny on the edges. Caprice des Dieux is mild, sweet, and salty, and also buttery, and creamy.

Caprice des Dieux, which means "Caprice of the Gods", comes from Haute-Marne, in the northeast part of France. It was first produced and sold commercially in 1956 and was created by Jean-Noël Bongrain (and though Jean-Noël may sound like a woman's name, he's a Monsieur).


Caprice, which looks to me like it should be a feminine word (hey! it ends it "E"!), is, in fact, masculine. It turns out that the "ice" ending of "caprice", like the "age" ending of "fromage", is generally masculine. Yes, there's no doubt that the gender of French words does, in fact, seem like the gods being capricious. Masculine vaginas? Feminine kings? You can imagine the gods up there: "Ha, ha! We're just messing with the humans!"


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