I recently traveled east to Toronto and Montreal to visit friends. Expecting much colder weather than the balmy west coast, I packed my heaviest jacket. Surprisingly mild temperatures left me holding my jacket as I walked around Toronto for the first few days. Later on, the temperature dropped, my jacket went back on, and the phrase became a metaphorical coat rack on which to hang my brief observations of English and French in Montreal.
My knowledge of French is very limited. I should have paid more attention in high school French classes, but I have at least retained adequate pronunciation to fool baristas into initially thinking I might be French when I order a coffee (at least, until they ask if I would like it “avec creme, sucre, ou noir”. “Sorry? Uh, noir, black, thanks. Merde.”) Growing up reading bilingual packaging has also helped. However, it was still fun to order food en Francais and try to tease apart strangers’ conversations as they effortlessly flitted from French to English, midstream. Curses and other points of emphasis were often in English, which is a jarring juxtaposition to the fluidity of the spoken French which dominated conversations. I could understand some of the salient points from headlines in the free newspapers, although my grasp of grammar is lacking. I even helped a recently arrived French man navigate the Metro, using only a couple of words and some gestures.
It gave me a sense of hope, that with enough study, and practice in a French-speaking city such as Montreal, I could one day be somewhat competent in the language. Looking back over my bucket list from years ago, I see that learning French is indeed one of my items.
A particularly amusing anecdote comes from the night my friends and I ate at a vegan restaurant, Aux Vivres, to balance out the succulent smoked meat from the night before. While waiting to be seated, we browsed the desserts in the adjoining cafe. The vegan cheesecake looked particularly sumptuous, even though it contained no real cheese. The name was even more impressive: fauxmage.
I pointed out to my friends this particularly clever portmanteau (faux and fromage = fauxmage, or false cheese). They agreed it sounded cool, but apparently hadn’t heard of the concept of a portmanteau, despite its French origins!. After some discussion, I learned that the phrase translates to “hold the jacket”, or coat rack, since manteau means jacket.
I discovered another one on my last night in Montreal. At a bar on St. Denis, I ordered a maple syrup infused beer: L’erabiere. Erable is maple, and biere is, well, beer. Delicieux.
Hold the jacket. What does a coat rack have to do with combining two dissimilar words into a single one, instantly tightening and enhancing the meaning of a thing or situation? I’m not sure, but if nothing else, it provides a place to hang the intriguing portmanteaus and discoveries of another language.