A Facebook comment by an Australian cousin currently living in France has inspired this post:
Dear smokers of France,
Although I have an odd accent, I will understand you if you ask me for a lighter. Making expansive gestures and asking “Do you ‘ave zee fire?” is only going to result in me busting out some sweet dance moves to prove that yes, I do indeed ‘ave zee fire.
“Vous avez du feu?” is a well-known opening gambit in French among cigarette smokers. It’s a classic example of how a word in one language can have an entirely different meaning in another.
Feu is used in a large number of French expressions, starting with cars and traffic lights.
feu antibrouillard = fog light or lamp
feu arrière = tail or rear light
feu clignotant = flashing light/blinker/indicator
feux de croisement = dipped headlights, low beams
feux de détresse = hazard (warning lights), usually called warning in French, pronounced waa-ning.
feux de recul = reversing/back-up lights
feu vert/orange/rouge = green/amber/red light, traffic lights and feu rouge is more specifically used to mean traffic lights in general e.g. tournez à gauche au prochain feu rouge = turn left at the next set of traffic lights, which is a bit odd if you think about it because you should really be turning at the green light!
Bonfire is interesting, because it’s called a feu de joies in French in reference to the fact that it provides a warm place that people can gather around at nighttime and enjoy themselves. Despite appearances, the “bon” in “bonfire” does not mean “good” but “bones”, originally denoting a fire on which bones were burnt, or for burning heretics. Much nicer in French!
Not surprisingly, a coup de feu is a gunshot, like our gunfire.
The hot plates on the stove are also called feux which means that a stove with three burners or rings is a cuisinière à trois feux though this is probably dying out as more ceramic cooking tops come into use, giving trois plaques.
An expression that’s really expressive is Il a le feu au cul, because it so exactly describes drivers that tear past you on the motorway, flashing their headlines for you to get out of the way when you’re already sitting on 130 kph. It has sexual meaning as well. Cul is a three-letter word for backside. I could probably do a whole post on it alone but the blog would be inundated with spam as a result! Suffice to say that there are a whole lot of expressions connected with the word.