Here in New Orleans we have a very particular way of life, from our mannerisms, customs to even our way of talking. Some of our expressions may seem bizarre or even foreign to those outside of the city. Because of my long experience studying French, I have slowly come to realize that the reason for this must be the French influence on the city. Some of these expressions seem to be a direct translation of the French, and the locals using these expressions may not even be aware of it. I have in fact pointed this out to some of my students who seem genuinely surprised that the expression in French is more or less exactly what we say here in English. This could possibly be explained by the fact that generations separate the native French speaking inhabitants from the citizens of Louisiana today. French was officially banned from public schools and government buildings in 1916. It took awhile for English to take over and during that time, many French speakers were probably translating.
In Louisiana, for example, a popular expression is “making groceries”. It is what we do if we go grocery shopping, yet no one else in America will “make groceries” when going out shopping. This is easily explained by the fact that faire les courses in French is “to do errands or go shopping” because faire in French is both “make or do”.
However, there are many more examples than that, especially involving the verb passer, to pass or spend. Here you will often hear people say they “pass a good time”, not the more common “have a good time”, most probably because the expression in French is almost exactly the same, passer un bon moment. They might also say variations, like passer un bon week-end, passer une bonne soirée. People here might also “pass by your house”, meaning to come see you. This too is a literal translation of the expression passer te voir (come to see you). In other uses for the verb passer, people in Louisiana will also “pass the vacuum” when cleaning the house, which seems to come directly from the expression in French passer l’aspirateur.
One final “frenchified” way of speaking that is common in Louisiana is the use of pronouns, especially repeated ones for emphasis. It is very common to hear people say things like “Me, I like it me.” As in, “I like me some gumbo, me”, or even “Him and me, we go there often.” I suspect that this is a hold-over from French which is a language that uses repeated words, not vocal stress, to emphasize words or to clarify who the subject is. Therefore, the French might say, “Moi, je l’aime bien.” (Me, I like it/him a lot.) Or “Lui et moi, nous y allons souvent.” (Literally “him and me”, in order to say “he and I, we go there often.”)
Finally, a very unique Louisiana term that we use here is banquette, which is used to refer to the sidewalks here, where the French would use the more modern term trottoir, meaning pavement. This may seem like a uniquely Louisiana French term that the French outside of Louisiana do not use at all. There are quite a few of those examples as well. However, this is a very different situation, as it is more a case of 19th century French still being used in New Orleans. In my 1877 edition of a French-English dictionary from Cassell & Co., a banquette was a “footway of a road”. That would actually make a lot of sense for its day, since sidewalks were not paved in New Orleans at the time. It was more likely a slightly raised side of the road alongside of the houses.
There may be many more examples of this that I have not yet come across. I do believe that our French roots run deep here, and that while French was almost wiped out here one hundred years ago, it never really went away. It went underground for a while and has reemerged stronger than ever. French words are a part of our daily lives, in the naming of streets, buildings, magazines, foods, shops, social organizations and so on. Additionally, much of that French-ness is also a part of the way we express ourselves, even while in English.
This is a work in progress, so stay posted to receive updates to this article. If anyone has more expressions to share, I would love to read your comments below.